Lee Daniels’ The Butler takes the audience into the life of Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker), who worked for 34 years as a butler in the White House — through eight presidential terms from Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman). Cecil faithfully served each president, no matter the civil rights turmoil that raged outside of the pristine palace.
That’s where Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo), a born agitator, brings conflict into Cecil’s life. Louis is a rebel rouser fighting for change and equality for blacks in the civil rights movement and beyond. Screenwriter Danny Strong (based on the Wil Haygood November 2008 Washington Post article A Butler Well Served by This Election) chooses to juxtapose father (passive) with son (fighter).
Neither father nor son is portrayed as being in the wrong, though; they just see the world differently — which is strange because Cecil pretty much loses everything at a young age due to racial violence. His father Earl (David Banner) was shot in the head after he said “Hey!” to plantation owner Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer), who had just raped Hattie Pearl (Mariah Carey), Earl’s wife and Cecil’s mother.
Director Daniels uses this opening scene to make sure the audience knows that though The Butler will be a feel-good movie, it’s not going to be all fluff and happy times. Earl’s senseless death in 1926 North Carolina shows that blacks had it rough 61 years after being freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.
Hattie Pearl was never again right in the head, and Cecil was put to work as a “house n***a.” These unfortunate developments, however, prepared him for his significant role in history as a highly regarded butler within the White House.
Whitaker as Cecil is superb. The audience really feels Cecil’s hope that by being subservient and genial in nature, he can convince whites that black people aren’t the minstrels they have always been portrayed to be. The film’s opening quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. perfectly describes Cecil’s thought process: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.”
In stark contrast is Oyelowo’s Louis, who begins the film already disgruntled about the state of race relations in America. He eventually makes his way to Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., where he links up with a fun Carol Hammie (former America’s Next Top Model contestant Yaya Alafia). Carol proves to be a great influence on Louis and they work together agitating the system with sit-ins, freedom rides and marches, following King and Malcolm X with the same vigor.
Oyelowo, a fine actor in his own right, takes the audience through Louis’ stages of frustration, action, and becoming wise about his decisions and feelings.
A surprisingly good performance is delivered by Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s wife Gloria Gaines, a complex character herself. Where Cecil is markedly passive and Lois is markedly passionate, Gloria is in-between. She is proud of her husband working in the White House. She’s proud of Louis for standing up for his beliefs; she just doesn’t like that he’s constantly beaten and arrested. Winfrey makes Gloria her own, gravitating the audience to the matriarch.
Daniels, who is obviously making the most of his success with Precious, has produced a great film, chockfull of talented actors: Vanessa Redgrave as Thomas’ grandmother Annabeth Westfall; Clarence Williams III as Cecil’s mentor/father figure Maynard; Terrence Howard as the Gaines’ next door neighbor Howard; Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as White House butlers Carter Wilson and James Halloway, respectively; John Cusack as Richard Nixon; Jesse Williams as civil rights activist James Lawson; James Marsden as John F. Kennedy; Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson; Nelsan Ellis as King; and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan.
This caliber of actors doesn’t assemble for just any director; there has to be something that attracts them. Daniels is such a director. His Butler is a gem, definitely worth a watch.
Not just for the history it chronicles, but for the way Daniels tells his audience that when it comes to fighting racism, whether passively or aggressively, there is no wrong side. Because in the end, both sides are still fighting for the same cause.
The Butler also is a good history lesson, so that we don’t forget where we as a people have come from, and learn to take our opportunities more seriously.