Following Lee Daniels second and most powerful film, “Precious”, which asked what would be worst in the world than being a teenage overweight black woman in the US with a witch of a mother and two daughters by her step-father, we get the history of the US from the side of the African-Americans. What started out with “Roots” in the 70's and ended up with Barack Obama being elected the first African-American president of the US is reviewed carefully and systematically by Daniels on a well-written script by Danny Strong that never looses track of its purpose.
The story centers on Cecil Gaines, a man that comes from a plantation, watching his father being shot for standing against the injustice of seeing his mother being taken advantage of, and that grows to become a Butler in the White House serving eight presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan.
Learning to serve the white men’s every need and to be silent and to accept, Cecil not only has to become a non-existent entity while presidents deal with social changes, but also when watching what his older son does by joining the freedom movement of the 60’s up until he becomes part of the black panthers and ends up trying to be politically active.
There is a great sequence that juxtaposes the servants carefully setting up the table at the White House while the freedom movement sends its recruits to sit at a coffee shop disregarding the "Colored" section and requesting to be served. The balance act between an act of servitude expected and unexpected is breathtaking. To all this, Cecil’s only act of defiance, through the years, is simply requesting that the black service be paid the same as the white service, something he is never successful about. But he is present when the 8 presidents make their decisions to move forward. Did he influence them in any way? The gradual changes from the moment when Lyndon B. Johnson establishes that the "negro" should be treated fairly, to the moment Obama gets elected suggest so.
Daniels film and Strong’s script based on the article “A Butler Well Served by This Election” by Wil Haygood, develop the thesis that changes are slow burning but inevitable, as long as we keep standing and never lose our sight on the prize and on this idea, the film is effective, specially since Daniels, seeing the scope of this film to become another “Malcolm X”, directed it as a larger-than-life self important history lesson. If history is taught by the winners, it was about time that the African-American community had a film that reflected their painful path to equal acceptance. Of course, events like the Trayvon case remind us that the seed of racism is far from removed, but a film like The Butler is absolutely necessary.
Backed up by an impressive cast, the always helpful support from Oprah Winfrey and lead by the quiet but restless portrayal of Cecil by the always-interesting Forest Whitaker, Daniels film hit the mark and becomes the film to see in 2014, and the fact that it reached the 1st spot at the box office means people are responding to this retelling of the American History.