Lee Daniels tells the story of race and American history in “The Butler”
Published: Monday, August 26, 2013
Updated: Monday, August 26, 2013 22:08
It is hard to know where to begin with Lee Daniels’ “The Butler.” As one of the first Oscar contenders of the year, “The Butler” has been one of the most talked about films of the summer. Subtle in its message but powerful in its aim, the film delivers a thought-provoking look at an important chapter in American history through the eyes of an African-American family. Unlike recent movies that have tackled similar themes of civil rights, “The Butler” is unexpectedly disturbing and serious. For fans of movies like “The Help” or “The Great Debaters,” “The Butler” may come as a surprise with its forthright and accurate portrayals of reality, but it is this split from the fluffy Hollywood adaptations of history that make the film award-worthy.
While many people might think that “The Butler” is a political drama, it is far from it. It focuses instead on the relationships in the Gaines family and how history influences their lives. The film primarily follows Cecil Gaines, the family patriarch and the eponymous “butler.” Following Cecil from his childhood on a cotton farm in Macon County, Ga., to his adolescence learning the ways of a house servant, to his promotion to White House butler, Gaines works through eight presidential administrations. Gaines interacts with each president and the audience gets a glimpse at how Civil Rights were enacted politically versus how they were practiced privately. For example, even during the Reagan Administration from 1981 to 1989, Gaines is still refused a salary equal to his white counterparts. It is these small reminders of lingering inequalities in recent history that provoke the audience to think about how much discrimination we overlook in our lifetime. Furthermore, as Gaines raises his children in D.C., a part of the country that during the 1960s would not be considered the South, de facto socio-economic segregation is striking. As Louis, the eldest son, graduates, he asks his father if he had seen a white person among the matriculating students. Cecil looks at him, caught over having raised his children in a better place with all the opportunities he never had, and realizing that the world they live in is far from ideal. With that Louis shrugs and ducks away, only to appear next at Fisk University—birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement—where he becomes active in the Freedom Riders, a historical group that took the first steps to non-violent protest against segregation.
The Gaines family lives through some of the arguably most important chapters of American history, ranging from the inception of the Civil Rights Movement to the Vietnam War to the election of President Obama. The historical representation of events such as the Freedom Rides, the murder of Emmett Till, the Woolworth’s sit-ins and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., are surprisingly true to history. Many films glamorize the past, (ahem, “Les Miserables”) but “The Butler” does not set foot in such territory. Other than Louis, the family does not participate in history; they live alongside history, experiencing the effects of sending their son and brother to Vietnam and the victory of watching an African-American president take the Oval Office. This is what makes “The Butler” such an achievement; it chronicles history without recreating it, choosing instead to watch the effects on an average African-American family and foregoing the historical inaccuracies.
The acting in the film is nothing short of evocative and spectacular. Oprah Winfrey delivers a heartfelt performance as Gloria Gaines, Cecil’s troubled but warm-hearted wife. For anyone who doubted whether Oprah could pull her weight on such a serious role, prepare to be impressed by her spot-on delivery. The remainder of the cast is star-studded, with big names such as Jane Fonda, Alan Rickman, John Cusak, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Minka Kelly and Mariah Carey. Each star is flawless and unassuming in his or her role, a difficult task to be sure when you are playing some of the most influential men and women of the 20th Century. Even with brilliant performances by the other cast members, Forrest Whitaker’s performance secured this film as one of the best of the year. Whitaker’s acceptance of Gaines’ sensitive and brave demeanor is so seamless that it is hard to believe you are not watching the real Cecil Gaines on the screen. His acting, as well as his narration, is so convincingly authentic that it transports the audience into his life and takes them for a two and a half hour walk through history.
One of the most important films of the year, “The Butler” is a necessary reminder to all that inequality and oppression still exists in the nation today. This message is delivered subtly, firmly and without pretentions. The film does not blame anyone for the wrongs that unfold in the story line; it simply puts a spotlight on a chapter of history that should never be forgotten. It is a film well worth the ticket price and a must-see for anyone who enjoys a thought-provoking and intelligent story.