Lee Daniels film is mostly fiction, but the inspiration it generates is very real.
Let’s get this out of the way. Lee Daniels’ The Butler, based on the life of real White House butler Eugene Allen, is a mostly fictional film that uses the life of a real man as a jumping off point to create a historical tapestry that covers many elements of life for black Americans — from the late 1920s through the election of Barack Obama.
If you’re interested in just the facts, read the original article on Mr. Allen from the 2008 Washington Post story titled “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” the inspiration for the film.
Now let’s talk about The Butler strictly as a movie — a dramatic, powerful, occasionally funny and inspiring movie. Forest Whitaker gives a brilliant performance in the title role, his character renamed Cecil Gaines. We first see Gaines as a child enduring the hardships of slave-like conditions on a cotton farm in 1926, and later as a teenager looking for a new life, Whitaker arrives in the role a few years before his character’s move to the White House working at a Washington, D.C. hotel.
Cecil’s biggest lesson is silence, both the actual silence of not saying anything or reacting to anything said by the white people that he serves, but the silence behind his eyes. To succeed in service, you can never let your true feelings break through your façade.
Once Cecil makes it to D.C. we are introduced to his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and their two sons, the older of which, Lewis (David Oyelowo), finds himself in an ongoing conflict with his father over his dad’s life in service and his own ambitions to help accelerate the Civil Rights era as a Freedom Rider during the turbulent 1960s and beyond.
Director Daniels’ intent is clear. He wants to include as many issues of black life as possible. Because of his desire to create this huge canvas, his fictionalization of these lives is occasionally overwrought in order to squeeze in a direct connection to 60 years of racial inequality. The truth of black life that he reveals by doing so more than makes up for the moments of melodrama.
What pleased me most about The Butler is that this African-American director wanted to tell the story strictly from the African-American perspective. Too many films about Civil Rights issues featuring black protagonists have included white characters in central roles helping the black characters achieve their goals.
In The Butler, the presidents are the supporting players, filled by such major names as Robin Williams (Dwight Eisenhower); John Cusack (Richard Nixon, complete with fake nose); John F. Kennedy (James Marsden); Liev Schreiber (Lyndon B. Johnson), and Brit Alan Rickman as the all-American Ronald Reagan. Toss in Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan and you see Daniels’ wicked sense of humor in his presidential casting.
Winfrey is terrific as Cecil’s fierce and sometimes wayward wife, but it’s Whitaker’s steadfast performance as an ordinary man in extraordinary times that makes The Butler so special. Gaines comes to realize that he was short-changing himself by his devotion to duty. The election of Obama comes as a coda to his life as a black man in a world that changed so dramatically for African-Americans during his time working in the White House.
For those of us 50 and older in the 'other' Atlantic City, Mayor Langford’s program commemorating the March on Washington in 1963 may have been our most memorable event of the summer.
There is still so much work that needs to be done, maybe differently from how it was done in the past but nevertheless, work to be done.