Blallywood Film Review: The Butler
Lee Daniels’ The Butler, based on the experiences of Eugene Allen, follows the life of Cecil Gaines, a butler who served in the White House for 34 years and over 8 administrations. Players include a regal Forest Whitaker as Gaines, Oprah Winfrey as his saucy and consummate homemaker wife Gloria, a skillful and near perfect David Oyelowo as his rebellious oldest son Louis, and Elijah Kelley as his youngest son Charlie. Other appearances by film stars and icons like Jane Fonda, Terrance Howard, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Robin Williams, Vanessa Redgrave, and even Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz (both having appeared in Lee Daniels’ Precious) round out this spectacular cast.
Cecil Gaines and his wife Gloria have a comfortable life, they don’t make waves and they want their sons to be safe and get an education. They find themselves in the middle of civil unrest when their oldest son enrolls at Fisk University and becomes heavily involved with the movement for civil rights. He participates in sit-ins, serves as a freedom rider, and even joins the Black Panthers in stark opposition to his father’s position as meek and trustworthy butler in the most prestigious of workplaces. Cecil is forced to negotiate his duty to remain apolitical and keep the job he takes great pride in and the circumstances of his home life. He and his son are on opposing ends of the fight for civil rights, both wanting the same goal of equality, but philosophically at odds.
Perhaps the best-executed element of this piece is the passage of time. The transitions between administrations and decades are truly gorgeous to experience. We witness a fantastic attention to and depth of design from the dark, damp, dirty, and oppressive cotton field to the immaculate environment of the White House. The film covers an enormous span of time and treats each major event with equal attention and detail. Daniels employs almost dream-like transitions to accompany the brilliant narration from Whitaker. Whitaker and Winfrey age believably and their relationship is so tender and warm that your heart completely melts whenever they share the screen.
The film also does an incredible job of exploring the dichotomous nature of the relationship between black youth and their parents. We see and understand the shame Louis feels that his father is a butler and we also see and understand the frustration Cecil feels about his son’s willingness to endanger his own life instead of studying and focusing on finding a good job and creating a family. The differentiation between subservient roles and subversive roles versus explicit protest and unrest in the road to racial equality is clear and perfectly articulated through dialogue and relationships, particularly when it comes to the shifts in ideology black families experience as each generation comes of age.
Another milestone worth mentioning is that the film solely focuses on the experiences and perspective of a black protagonist. The black experience is not used as an accessory or magical catalyst that propels the film which is usually the style of such films. Even in The Help, our clearest eye into the story was through Skeeter, not through Aibileen or Minny, although they were given fully realized journeys. In The Butler, our only eye into the story is Cecil’s and it’s a fantastic departure from the norm.
The performances leap from the screen, particularly Whitaker’s. He manages warmth, depth, regality, and sophistication in the midst of a profession whose only qualification is “…the room should feel empty when you’re in it.” He guides us with the steady hand that a leading man should. Another standout is Oyelowo. He probably has the second largest arc from quiet high schooler to eager undergraduate to militant Black Panther to articulate politician. His performance is pitch perfect and skillfully consistent. Kelly is also fantastic with his quick exchanges with the family; he nails perfect comedic one-liners in the thickest moments of tension within the house. Winfrey also makes a triumphant return to film after 15 years. Her portrayal of Gloria is especially memorable for its spice, style, authenticity, and vulnerability. She is far from the perfect mother, but does her absolute best to care for her family and keep peace in the home. You forget that it’s Oprah on the screen, which is a huge accomplishment for her.
The Butler debuted in the #1 spot at the box office with just over $25 million in sales. In part due to Winfrey’s unwavering campaign, but largely in part due to what could be classified as an Age of Reckoning regarding race relations in America. From Trayvon Martin to Paula Deen and even to Oprah’s recent recount of racism she experienced in Zurich while on vacation. The very concept of racism is uncomfortable and feels more convoluted than ever before; people just want to make sense of it all.
The criticism is polarizing with some, tired of seeing blacks portrayed as domestics, token friend, or oversexed thug, desiring an entirely new variety of black experiences on screen; and others excited to see a fully realized human experience on screen concerning any element of the black experience and thrilled that Hollywood is honoring the nobility and pride with which black help carried themselves and built the very foundation of the American economy. Whatever side of the argument you’re on, take a moment to see this film- it is truly a stunner. I estimate that it will be a fierce Oscar contender and will tip the scale toward more black protagonists with realistic circumstances and mainstream appeal. A.