“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” – Movie Review


“The law was against us” and “I was hungry all the time”.  Thus begins the story of Cecil in 1957 Jim Crow era, as he is was leaving the cotton farm after his slave “negro” father was brutally shot and his mother went semi-crazy after being sexually assaulted and after seeing her husband shot down.  Cecil had learned to be a house slave and he was fortunate that he found a mentor who taught him to serve as a butler.  His mentor paved a way for Cecil to reach Washington DC, where Cecil found work in fine hotels and rose enough to be noticed by some important people and was finally offered a job at the White House.

The movie is partially based on a true story about the life of Eugene Allen, about whom an article was first written in The Washington Post by Wil Haygood.  The script for the movie was later written by Danny Strong and is based on a composite sketch from interviews with several White House staff members.  Director Lee Daniels’ The Butler, tells the story of Cecil, who served as a Butler during the tenure of eight  American presidents, over three decades.  Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey give absolutely brilliant and riveting performance as Cecil and Gloria Gaines. OMG – Oprah Winfrey is one amazing character actress! David Oyelowo and Elijah Kelly are fantastic in the roles of their sons, Louis and Charlie.  (A side note, the best line in the movie comes from Charlie “Daddy, I like Sidney Poitier”, a simple line that shows that someone has to smooth out the ruffled feathers during family conflict.  Lee Daniels’ The Butler can boast of some significant star power.  Robin Williams stars as president Dwight Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, Live Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson.  Other well knows stars include Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, Alex Pettyfer (in the role of the rapist), Mariah Carey (role of Cecli’s mother), David Banner (as his father), Vanessa Redgrave (as the lady of the plantation), Yaya Alafia (as Louis’ girlfriend), Aml Ameen (as young Cecil), Nelsan Ellis (as MLK) and there are others.

The story crisscrosses the country’s civil rights struggle along with one family’s personal struggles, disagreements and gut wrenching decisions, and the bond of love that transcends it all. Cecil started his job at the White House, with simple instructions, “never listen or react to the conversations” because, it was further explained, “We have no tolerance for politics at the White House”!  “You hear nothing, you see nothing, you only serve”, he was told.  However, his job allowed him a frequent up-close window into the presidential history, unfolding right in front of him.  And while serving, he heard them all; he heard discussions to end the Korean War; he was privy to the tenure of President Kennedy, standing “on the edge of the New Frontier of the 1060s, a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, a frontier of unfilled hopes and threats”.   Cecil was preview to the gut wrenching ending of the Kennedy term, with President Kennedy’s assassination; and he witnessed President Johnson’s challenge and victory in getting Congress to adopt a far-reaching civil-rights bill, and passing a voting-right bill, among other accomplishments.  Cecil was witness to the constitutional amendment to ban school busing for racial balance, during the Nixon term, which was a setback to the civil right momentum of the Kennedy-Johnson years.   Cecil felt disturbed when President Reagan, who had been extremely good to him personally, promised his advisors to “veto any sanctions against South Africa”.  Cecil later retried during the Reagan Presidency.

The Butler, often called the White House Forrest Gump, offers, in addition to the multi decade narrative of one man’s perception of the American cultural history, a story of his and his family’s very personal struggle.  It gives an appreciation for the enormous toll on people when society decides they are just a little bit less than others.  At the start of the civil rights struggle, Cecil was merely trying to live an ordinary life, create a little oasis of comfort, and impart a simple lesson to his two sons, “We got two faces, us, and the one we show to the white people”.  His son Louis however, aspired to change the world, and his younger son wanted to serve the nation, by joining the army.  Gloria, his wife, was pulled by conflicting aspirations of her family, and often doused her worries with drinking and smoking.  When Louis, with his girlfriend Carol, joined the extremist Black Panther Party, Cecil did not want anything to do with his son.  However, by the time Dr. King was assassinated, he acknowledged that “the world was changing and I didn’t know where I fit in”.  Eventually, Cecil came to see the aspirations of his children and the concern of his wife, from a fresh new perspective and says in the end, “America’s always turned a blind eye toward what we’ve done to our own”. 

This is a fantastic movie.  Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey’s performance is truly stellar.  There isn’t sloppy performance from anyone of the huge cast nor is there a dialog that seems out of place, in the long history of events.  I give it a rating of 5 out of 5.

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