I watched the unprecedented performance of “Lee Daniels, The Butler” this weekend. The historical fictional drama written by Danny Strong, starring Forest Whitaker is based on the true story of the African-American butler Eugene Allen, who worked at the White House for 34 years.
The story is an amazing capture of historical milestones from 1926 through 2008, focusing mostly on the civil rights movement, and racism in America. Whitaker plays “Cecil Gaines”, a humbly believable role as a butler, proud to serve in the white house through multiple administrations. He is dedicated to his job, but struggles with what’s happening on the “outside.” Life on the outside is unpredictable, and often tense.
Oprah Winfrey plays his wife Gloria who unexpectedly does a fabulous job depicting a neglected housewife. The relationship is utterly believable as Oprah struggles with alcohol and infidelity while her husband spends long hours working.
The struggle continues while the country protests daily to achieve equality in America. Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo) is drawn to the cause, and becomes an integral part of the protests in the south, and later involved with the Freedom riders, and the Black Panther movement. Only after his retirement from the white house does Cecil appreciate or acknowledge his son’s involvement in the movement.
“You hear nothing; you see nothing; you only serve.” is the most important thing Cecil learns early on at the White House, but this phrase rules his life. It makes him passive and subservient with both his son and his wife throughout most of the movie.
Daniels casts a bunch of famous actors and actresses, but there were a few quirky cast members, and an undesirable moment. Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower and Mariah Carey’s little appearance would have been better played by unknown actors. Although the movie wasn’t particularly focused on presidential character, the presidential acting was weak. The focus was more about what each president was dealing with during his term in office. The scene with Lyndon B. Johnson on the toilet with his pants below his knees was completely unnecessary, and left me pondering its meaning. Maybe it was an attempt to show Johnson’s often crude behavior.
I liked that the movie showed the progression of the black male’s strength and significance from a helpless share cropper in 1926, to the 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama. We’ve come a long way.
The make-up for the elder Cecil, Gloria and Louis was fantastic, as well as the musical score, costumes, props, and editing.
This Oscar contender embraced our emotions. The theater together, laughed, gasped, cried and clapped. There were several scenes of exuberant humor, where you just found yourself chuckling. I especially liked the end as Cecil prepared to visit the newly elected President Obama. Cecil says nothing as he careful prepares his treasured attire (a tie from President Kennedy, and a tie holder from LBJ), and proudly wears them to the white house. Whitaker silently shows how proud he is to be a part of American history, how proud he is to have served 8 presidents, and his country as well.
I liked the movie. It was good to see with my 19-year-old daughter. Her generation for some odd reason, fails to value our African-American history. Maybe it’s because the Civil Rights history taught in school today is but a sliver, and of little significance when its taught within the 10 month span. I’ve tried to talk about our history with her, but she never wanted to hear about it. I’m dealing with a generation who couldn’t understand why we were making such a big deal that Barack Obama was going to be the “first black president”. Imagine that? Its disappointing, but I guess if you haven’t experienced racism’s past, you’re oblivious to its damage. I believe that if you have experienced it, you can appreciate our country’s accomplishments.
If you’ve seen the movie, let me know what you think.