Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Movies like The Butler are always features that spark my interest in a few ways. I obviously don’t know if they’re going to be good or not heading into them, but films like this offer their audiences opportunities to see certain historical events from a perspective that’s rare for everyone else except for the people who have lived in it. In this film, the audience gets to look at several events surrounding the Civil Rights Movement from the perspectives of people like Eugene Allen, a man who spent 34 years of his life working as a butler in the White House.
In the film officially entitled Lee Daniels’ The Butler, viewers bare witness to the life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), the central character of the film who’s modeled after the long tenured Eugene Allen. The reason for the name change is because, like a good portion of the other characters in this film written by Danny Strong, Gaines is actually a composite character. The characters are created in this fashion due to the fact that Strong heard all of these amazing stories during the research period of developing for The Butler.
He met and heard the stories of struggles and perseverance from plenty of people who lived during this volatile time in U.S. history and decided to fuse parts of their stories with the ones he knew from Eugene Allen and his family. This approach creates an account of plenty of historical events both inside and outside of the White House that plenty of us are familiar with in some way, shape or form. So, while Eugene Allen’s movie replica, Cecil Gaines is the focal point of The Butler, there are several accounts welded together to make this Lee Daniels directed feature.
While Allen was born in Scottsville, Virginia, Lee Daniels’ The Butler begins in Macon, Georgia. At this time, Gaines is only a child who’s living the usual life of a slave in America along with his family. He’s one of the many slaves working under the unforgiving sun in the fields for slave masters who would castigate and abuse them whenever they wanted to. That life is tough for anyone, but everything did begin to shift a bit once Gaines was moved into the house of the abhorrent abusers who perceive themselves as superior beings to everyone they enslaved with a darker complexion.
It was in this alternate living environment, that Gaines first learned about serving the fairer skinned race while inside the house. With him now being placed in the role of a resident house negro, he’s taught how to speak in front of White people and how to present himself when he’s in their presence. Along with being trained to never have an opinion and always remaining subservient on a continuous basis, these lessons are drilled into the young man’s brain.
While that’s going on and while he’s living the life that he’s forced to live, Gaines still has the desire that many slaves have had. With all of the things that were being pushed into his brain throughout his time as a house negro, there always remained a part of him that wanted to taste the freedom that his parents never did. He didn’t try to escape at first, but he gains enough strength, courage and security as the years go by to do just that with the hopes of finding freedom. In looking for freedom, what he finds is an opportunity as a butler in North Carolina.
The qualities that he learned come to benefit him here in his new job. It sets him a part from the other butlers, and some pretty “heavy hitters” out of D.C. come around and begin to take notice of his work and style. This leads him to eventually getting a call from the White House. He’s asked to come work there and he doesn’t wait too long to tell them that they have a deal. He gets everything together and moves his family to the D.C. area where he hopes to find success as a butler.
When he arrives there, he meets and greets several of the people who’ll be working by his side as caretakers of the White House throughout each day. Included inside of the large number of people hired to be the help, there’s Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz). These are two fellow butlers who Gaines is going to spend most of his time with during his work hours. They all put in the work and act accordingly, but there’s not much room for growth and improvement. It’s something that they all have to deal with and come to terms with.
Like his previous jobs outside of the White House, Gaines is not to have any opinion about anything. He knows the deal with this rule and understands that there should never be any politics in the White House. Wait, what? Well, that only applies to the Black people who work there. All of the other guys like politicians can still speak about politics and anything else they might imagine. Those are things that Gaines, Wilson, Holloway and the others aren’t allowed to do. At least not in front of the White people.
For Gaines, this suits him well as he’s providing for his family financially and feels like he’s doing a public service for other African-American around the country by appearing to be an upstanding negro who doesn’t fit the negative stereotypes that were placed on them. His approach would have been lauded by his fellow Afro-Americans that come from his generation and generations of the past, but it’s not exactly viewed in a positive light by the young bloods who are tired of being patient, pushed around and constantly to hope for a type of change that doesn’t appear to be coming their way anytime soon.
One of the many youngsters who are up for changing things now is Louis (David Oyelowo), one of Cecil’s young sons. Louis Gaines is an ambitious kid who’s determined to get the freedoms that were promised to his people when they were first set free from the chains of slavery. Like many of the youth of his time, Louis wanted to do something that would make America a better place for everybody. So , along with a group of his friends, he sets out on the path that they hope can lead to at least the beginning of the changes that they all dream of.
While his heart, mind and soul completely focused on his intentions of freeing America, his father simply doesn’t see it that way. Cecil wants Louis’ head “in the books” and off the frontlines of the wars that are waiting to explode right on their doorsteps. Needless to say, the two men butt heads on this and it cause discord and dissention amongst family members. So not only is Cecil seeing some of these political changes take place in front of his eyes I work where he can’t say a word about them, his own son is bringing this stuff right into their lives against his wishes.
Throughout Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the audience is allowed to see a demonstration of multiple aspects of life at a critically important time in U.S. history. I guess the best way to describe it is to say that it’s similar to a small and condensed encyclopedia of sorts that some of the viewers of today may need to see. When The Butler’s writer Danny Strong essentially said during our interview, that these stories of our history are being left untold, it’s something that I completely agreed with and recognized as kind of sad. These Civil Rights issues shaped and molded modern society in this country in many ways and it’s crazy to think that many of our young people today won’t know these stories or be able to fully understand them.
The Butler is the type of art that would allow for that to happen. The young people who only learn about Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas get to see some of what was happening in the lives of the other people who have been long forgotten and ignored by our media, Hollywood and our schools. The young people today probably know more about the holocaust that took place in Germany under Hitler than they do about some of the tragedies that have occurred in our country. Why has that been allowed to happen? By the way, this is also something that Strong pointed out.
Either way, this potentially educational experience his carried by Forest Whitaker starring as a conflicted man living in a time of shifting mentalities. As an older Black man in that day, his kind was being pushed aside as the more assertive Black man was beginning to take center stage. This creates an intriguing dynamic amongst the Gaines family and the Black community around the U.S. at the time. The older Afro-Americans were taught to be quiet, pray and hope that things would change with peace. The younger generation had enough of waiting and knew that God would only help those who helped themselves.
This is what takes over The Butler after a while. We get to see Cecil Gaines life as he moves along through the years, but the emotional battle with his son really takes over down the stretch and turns the movie into something more. That’s strange when you think about it, because as the film focuses more on the Gaines family, it actually places the whole movement at the center of its attention more than the tales of Gaines’ time in the White house. It’s all well put together and it shows why Whitaker, Daniels, Strong and others involved in the film get the accolades that they get.
One of the other “gimmicks’ in The Butler comes from the large number of cameos that are in it throughout. In some instances, you’ll be able to notice some of the actors, but in others, you’ll be wondering who the person is while you’re watching. For myself, these cameos aren’t a big deal, but I’m sure there are plenty who will disagree and see it as something special. I guess it’s cool, but it’s something that I could do with or without.
This film does what it says it will do by sending its audience into the past to see some of the significant events in American history. This is where all of the cameos come in, but it’s nice to see a movie that let’s us into the past, even if it’s just for a brief moment. Starting from the time Gaines was a child, all the way to the inauguration of the first African-American president Lee Daniels’ The Butler takes its viewers through the ups and downs of America through the eyes of people who’ve seen it all. Viewers will find some of these events and times to be fascinating, but there are a few instances later on in the film that are a little too rushed. Outside of that there’s not much bad to say.
Director: Lee Daniels
Cuba Gooding Jr.
Orlando Eric Street
Film Length: 132 minutes
Release Date: August 16, 2013
Distributor: The Weinstein Company