Lee Daniels’ The Butler 2 hrs, 6 mins. Director: Lee Daniels, Written by Danny Strong. Drama based on the true-life story of Eugene Allen. With an all-star cast: Forest Witaker (Cecil Gaines), Oprah Winfrey (his wife, Gloria), David Oyelowo (Louis Gaines’ older son), with cameo roles by: Robin Williams, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Jane Fond, James Marsden, Mariah Carey, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Vanessa Redgrave, Lenny Kravitz, Liev Schreiber
I love history especially when I have lived through so much portrayed in this film. So I expected that I would love the film. But I did not love the film. I LIKED it. Recognizing that the Civil Rights era could never fully be covered in one film, it left me with a taste for more history (Daniels might like that). The Butler is based on the life of a butler, Eugene Allen (named Cecil Gaines in the movie), who served eight presidents in the 20th century from Eisenhower to Reagan. Beyond the insightful glimpses into the White House it was even more about the personal family life struggles of the butler, how opinions differed from parent to son on the approach to equality through the Civil Rights movement. What you have to remember is that much of this “based on true story” never occurred. The older son, Louis, while he was a Freedom Rider, never ran for office. In the movie Daniels had the second son die in Viet Nam. In reality there was only one son. I think this was a symbolic gesture to the disproportionate young black men who were sent to Viet Nam and never returned home. That personal story seemed much more compelling that the presidential aspect.
As a baby boomer born in Chicago’s south side, I witnessed the violence of the Civil Rights movement. As a little girl, I remember the bombings of homes in my neighborhood when black families moved in. I remember the police reports on TV, the Church bombings killing little girls, the Klan and lynchings, the spraying of the marchers. Frankly, I was, as everyone was, frightened of it all. So our entire neighborhood moved and sought out retreats of safety. While there were black girls in my Catholic girls’ high school, generally, the blacks hung out with the blacks; the whites hung out with the whites. There were no discussions between the two races. Ever. So, it came as a surprise to me to learn not all blacks accepted the more activists’ Civil Rights movement as presented through Freedom Riders and marches.
It all compared to the Civil War with family members pitted against family members. Forest Witaker does a creditable job as the butler. Fair or unfair, Oprah Winfrey, while an excellent actress, has such a huge stage presence I just couldn’t get into her movie character, Cecil’s wife. She is Oprah; how can she be anyone else? David Oyelowo portrayed the older son, Louis Gaines; he doesn’t get enough credit for both his acting and the importance of his role. Watching how a Freedom Rider (and later Black Panther) evolved was insightful. Mariah Carey actually adds to the movie’s drama and renders a realistic depiction as Cecil’s mulatto mother who was raped. In reality, neither the father nor mother were raped or killed. It is merely used as dramatic licence by the director. Jane Fonda turned in a nice cameo performance as a perfect Nancy Reagan.
What I didn’t like was that the Director felt they had to overload the film with recognizable actors, whether black or white. With such a list of illustrious names, the viewer was more likely to look for their favorite actor and watch that actor portray a character (how I felt about Oprah) rather than becoming involved emotionally with the characters those actors portrayed. A sort of out-of-body experience. It was unsettling. Was I there to see Cuba Gooding Jr. or learn about the Civil Rights movement? Familiarity got in the way. Most of the presidents could have been played by any number of actors. Couldn’t Daniels market to a white America without the name actors but just a compelling story line? It is as if he was afraid that this movie would not sell to a White Audience in America without facial recognition. This in itself would suggest that the Civil Rights Movement still needs to continue its’ journey. It is not over. ★★★ Plus