PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):
In 2009, an elderly Cecil Gaines recounts his life story, while waiting at the White House to meet the newly inaugurated president.
In 1926, at the age of seven, Gaines is raised on a cotton plantation in Macon, Georgia, by his sharecropping parents. One day, the farm’s owner, Thomas Westfall, rapes Cecil’s mother, Hattie Pearl. Cecil’s father confronts Westfall, and is shot dead. Cecil is taken in by Annabeth Westfall, the estate’s caretaker and owner’s grandmother, who trains Cecil as a house servant.
In 1937, at age eighteen, he leaves the plantation and his mother, who has been mute since the incident and presumably dies of old age by the time the plantation shuts down. One night, Cecil breaks into a hotel pastry shop and is, unexpectedly, hired. He learns advanced skills from the master servant, Maynard, who, after several years, recommends Cecil for a position in a Washington D.C. hotel. While working at the D.C. hotel, Cecil meets and marries Gloria, and the couple have two sons: Louis and Charlie. In 1957, Cecil is hired by the White House during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration. White House maître d’ Freddie Fallows shows Cecil around, introducing him to head butler Carter Wilson and co-worker James Holloway. At the White House, Cecil witnesses Eisenhower’s reluctance to use troops to enforce school desegregation in the South, then his resolve to uphold the law by racially integrating Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.
The Gaines family celebrates Cecil’s new occupation with their neighbors, Howard and Gina. Louis, the elder son, becomes a first generation university student at Fisk University in Tennessee, although Cecil feels that the South is too volatile; he wanted Louis to enroll at Howard University instead. Louis joins a student program led by Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) activist James Lawson, which leads to a nonviolent sit-in at a segregated diner, where he is arrested. Furious, Cecil confronts Louis for disobeying him. Gloria, who feels that Cecil puts his job ahead of her, descends into alcoholism and an affair with the Gaines’s neighbor, Howard.
In 1961, after John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, Louis and a dozen others are attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan as well as people wearing Nazi uniforms. while traveling on a bus in Alabama. Louis is shown participating in the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade, where dogs and water cannons were used to stop the marchers, one of the movement’s actions which inspired Kennedy to deliver a national address proposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Several months after the speech, Kennedy is assassinated. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, enacts the transformative legislation into law. As a goodwill gesture, Jackie Kennedy gives Cecil one of the former president’s neckties before she leaves the White House.
Louis is later shown participating in the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Movement, which inspired Johnson to demand that Congress enact the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. Johnson also gives Cecil a tie bar.
In the late 1960s, after civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, Louis visits and tells his family that he has joined the Black Panthers. Outraged, Cecil orders Louis and his girlfriend, Carol, to leave his house. Louis is soon arrested, and Carter bails him out. Cecil becomes aware of President Richard Nixon’s plans to suppress the movement.
The Gaines’ other son, Charlie, confides to Louis that he plans to join the Army in the war in Vietnam. Louis announces that he won’t attend Charlie’s funeral if he is killed there because while Louis sees Americans as multiple races, Charlie sees the country as one race. A few months later, Charlie is killed and buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Louis does not attend. However, when the Black Panthers resort to violence in response to racial confrontations, Louis leaves the organization and returns to college, earning his master’s degree in political science and eventually running for a seat in Congress.
Meanwhile, Cecil confronts his supervisor at the White House over the unequal pay and career advancement provided to the black White House staff. With President Ronald Reagan’s support, he prevails, and his professional reputation grows to the point that he and his wife are invited by President and Nancy Reagan to be guests at a state dinner. Yet at the dinner and afterwards, Cecil becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the class divisions in the White House. Finally, after witnessing Reagan’s refusal to support economic sanctions against South Africa, he resigns. Afterwards, Cecil and Gloria visit the Georgia plantation where he was raised, which by then had long been abandoned.
Gloria, wanting Cecil to mend his relationship with Louis, reveals to him that Louis has told her that he loves and respects them both. Realizing his son’s actions are heroic, Cecil joins Louis at a Free South Africa Movement protest against South African apartheid, and they are arrested and jailed together.
In 2008, Gloria dies shortly before Barack Obama is elected as the nation’s first African-American president, a milestone which leaves Cecil and Louis in awe. Two months, two weeks and one day later, Cecil prepares to meet the newly inaugurated President at the White House, wearing the articles he had received from presidents Kennedy and Johnson. A man approaches Cecil and tells him the president is ready and shows him the way to the Oval office. Cecil tells the man that he knows the way and as he walks down the hallway the voices of presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson are heard which later fade away as president Barack Obama’s famous “Yes we can” quote can be heard as Cecil walks through the doors of the Oval office.
When Lee Daniels’ The Butler was released a couple of years ago, there was much talk about how it would be received, partially because this was another historical race-based film that seemed to be tailor-made for a run at the Oscar. All that talk subsided, though, when people actually watched the film and realized that it wasn’t as racially motivated as they were led to believe. If race isn’t the driving force of this picture, then let’s find out what is, shall we?
What is this about?
Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker delivers a powerful performance as Cecil Gaines, who served as the White House butler under eight presidents. His three decades of service unfold against a backdrop of unparalleled change in American history.
What did I like?
Longevity. The timeline of this film is from the late 20s to 2009 (or somewhere around that time). In that time span, our lead character became a butler at the White House in the early 50s, during Eisenhower’s administration, and was steadily employed there until the end of the Reagan era, and still kept spy until his death is 2010. Sakes alive! We can only wish for that type of longevity, right?
History. As I said, this isn’t a race film, but you can’t go through 80 something years without hitting the racial strife and turmoil in this country’s history, especially when the main character is a black man. As such, we get to see the Civil Rights movement, rise of the Black Panther party, Voting Rights Movement, etc. These have little to no effect on Forest Whitaker’s character directly, save for the Civil Rights movement, but his son is involved in them all, which causes an interesting subplot of family drama.
Silence speaks words. It took me awhile to recognize who Whitaker’s mom was in the first scenes, but as it turns out, she is that great actress, Mariah Carey! Ok, I’m being a little facetious, but Carey does give a really good performance…and she doesn’t say a word. The plantation owner takes and rapes her, and the other couple of scenes she’s in are silence. Her silence, though, speaks volumes as to how she was affected. Mariah is good at these small, but powerfully dramatic roles. Maybe she can graduate to bigger ones, soon.
What didn’t I like?
Spitting image. I’m really not sure what to think of the casting of the presidents in this film. With the exception of Robin Williams and John Cusack, they all resemble their counterpart (with the aid of makeup), but I still wonder if someone just pulled names out of a hat and said they should be this person. How else do you explain Alan Rickman as Ronald Regan or Liev Shrieber as Lyndon B. Johnson? I will give credit to John Cusack and James Marsden, they were pretty good at bringing their characters to life, despite not really resembling them.
Comment on Hollywood? Halfway through the picture, I noticed that a good chunk of black Hollywood was in this film. Some of the bigger names are missing (Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Queen Latifah, Angela Bassett, etc.), but I have a feeling they were at least contacted. Here’s the thing, what does it say about Hollywood when everytime there is a film that casts a chunk of black actors, it is the same handful? Case in point…there is a scene in which Oprah and Terrence Howard are talking about hooking up. Funny thing is that they were husband and wife a few years back in The Princess and the Frog. A good chunk of the cast starred in Red Tails and Oprah and Forrest Whitaker seem to be joined at the hip. Just some food for thought.
Underrated support. Most people know Lenny Kravitz as musician, but he’s been making a name for himself on the big screen, most notably in the Hunger Games franchise. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that he is a level-headed fellow butler who seems to have his pulse on the world outside. A stark contrast to the fast-talking, smooth ladies man that is Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s character. What strikes me as odd, though, is that neither of these guys gets any recognition for their fine performances. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even know they were in here until they appeared on the screen, yet I knew Vanessa Redgrave had a tiny part at the beginning. Definitely underrated performances, if you ask me, and they deserve more respect for what they accomplished.
So, Lee Daniels’ The Butler…what did I think of it? Well, first of all, it is a very fine piece of modern cinema. It manages to keep the audience captivated from start to finish, which is a hard task, especially with this subject matter and over a vast amount of years. That being said, I feel this film may have spent a little too much time with the oldest son, as opposed to giving the youngest a little time to shine and/or focusing on the titular character. That said, I do recommend this. However, for me, it is a bit too heavy to watch more than one time. If I feel the need to check it out again, I’ll just find some clips.
5 out of 5 stars