Unfortunately, over the past few decades, Hollywood has failed to produce many films about the Civil Rights movement. Thankfully, Lee Daniels has set to change that with his new film Lee Daniels’ The Butler. This star-studded movie, which is based on a true story, does a wonderful job giving an overview of the Civil Rights Movement and its effects on the country. Screenwriter Danny Strong (Game Change, and more importantly Jonathan from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) weaves a masterful story that follows African Americans’ quest for civil rights over a span of about four decades (and seven presidencies). Although it takes several liberties (including even the name of the main character), The Butler certainly has its heart in the right place.
The storyline of the film uses its main characters to illustrate lynchpin moments during the Civil Rights Movement, such as the Nashville sit-ins and the May 14, 1961 Freedom Rider bus burning. Many of these moments are difficult to watch, as I’m sure they were hard to live through, but that is what makes this movie so important. It is one thing to read about the sacrifices civil rights supporters made during that period of time, but it’s another to see it on screen. The Butler does a fantastic job bringing the decades-long fight for equality to the forefront, giving audience members (like myself) a way to experience it, if only for 2 hours and 10 minutes.
The Butler has a tragic beginning in 1921 Macon, Georgia. A young Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker in adulthood) is helping his sharecropper parents in the cotton field when all of a sudden his mother (Mariah Carey) is dragged out of the field by the heir to the plantation (Alex Pettyfer) and raped. When Cecil’s father confronts the young white man, he is shot. Out of “pity”, the plantation matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) decides to make Cecil a house butler, because that job is a lot less rigorous than working out in the fields. After about 10 years of work, Cecil decides he needs to set out on his own so he packs up and after weeks of hardship, ends up working as a butler at hotels in North Carolina and Washington, DC.
Cecil makes a nice home for himself in D.C., with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and two sons Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie. Luckily, after many years at the D.C. hotel, Cecil’s hard work and political impartiality are noticed and appreciated. He is offered a job on the butler staff at the White House, where he becomes a close confidante to many of history’s most important U.S. Presidents. So much so, he is there for many of their most personal moments, such as Eisenhower’s painting sessions, LBJ’s toilet meetings, and Reagan’s self-doubt about his stance on Apartheid.
As Cecil gets more involved in his position at the White House, which requires political impartiality, his son Louis gets politically active. Louis becomes a member of the Freedom Riders and later the Black Panthers, which helps the movie show what was going on for African Americans during this tumultuous period of time. As the father and son’s mindsets grow further and further apart, their once harmonious relationship begins to crumble. Will they ever be able to mend fences and come to a common understanding?
Along with the storyline, the best part of The Butler is its amazing performances. There are so many incredible actors in this film, some may go unnoticed. For example, Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda are incredible as Ronald and Nancy Reagan; Liev Schreiber is almost unrecognizable as LBJ; and Robin Williams is shockingly tame as Dwight Eisenhower. I can’t think of any other films that have taken such a risk in the casting department. Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, and up-and-coming actor David Oyelowo also deserve recognition for their incredible performances.
The real standouts of the film, however, are Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, who give two of the most memorable performances so far this year. Whitaker is fantastic as Cecil Gaines, a man that hides a lot of pain behind his eyes. As Gaines says in the movie, the White House staff has “two faces”, one fake face that the staff displays to their bosses and guests, and their real face, the one they hide and only reveal to those they trust. It’s easy to see the toll this double life takes on Gaines through Whitaker’s facial expressions and mannerisms over the years. Like Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, Whitaker’s performance in The Butler is internal, and some of his best moments are through subtleties. For instance, you can tell how difficult and demeaning it is for Gaines to ask to be paid the same amount of money as the white staff, however he still asks as his own way of civil disobedience.
I have been a huge fan of Oprah for years, to the point where I got a DVR in college solely to tape her show. With that said, I tried to put on my movie critic hat and go into the movie as unbiased as I possibly could. Thankfully, I was not disappointed. If anything, I have an even bigger respect for this unbelievably talented woman. Oprah is both recognizable and unrecognizable in her performance as the matriarch of the family. Recognizable Oprah moments are always her infectious laughter and big heart, but unrecognizable was the pain her character carried after battles with depression, alcoholism and loneliness. In this film, Oprah is great for creating light-hearted moments, but at her best when she is showing her dramatic side. Let me say this now, if Oprah Winfrey does not get an Oscar nomination this year, I will be shocked.
The Butler is a powerful film that finally brings the breadth of the Civil Rights movement to the big screen. It is a film that enables the stories in textbooks to come to life, allowing audiences (especially younger generations who did not experience these events first-hand) to put themselves in important moments in history. Definitely don’t miss seeing this film and make sure your kids see it as well. You won’t be disappointed. Not to mention you also get to see Oprah dance in a 60’s era jumpsuit! What’s better than that?
My Review: A