“Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey opens nationwide to already surging Oscar buzz. The uproar isn’t unwarranted for this father/son family tale set to a civil rights backdrop.
This is the story of one man’s journey through race, politics, the tension of changing times, and fatherhood. Cecil Gaines (Whitaker) is a member of the White House service fleet where he serves as a Colored expert in hospitality.
“Butler” begins with Cecil as a child in the fields with his father and mother. In a matter of moments what is an instant of education becomes one of tragedy. With the click of a gun and the magical words, “I’m gon’ teach cha how to be a house nigga,” Cecil is set on the labyrinthine path of service and subservience.
From the cotton fields to the walls of the White House, Cecil Gaines is the metronome by which norms shift. He is a butler, quiet and firm. But he is also a husband and father and friend. He ticks steadily as the world -- both personal and social -- whirls by him, rapidly changing while remaining the same.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is surprisingly funny considering images of dead Coloreds hanging from a tree or Negroes being toppled by fire hoses and taken down by attack dogs. It is shockingly celebratory taking into account the emotional and financial strife a Black family experienced in those restrictive times.
Most unforeseen is how this focuses on the political distress of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and manages to be telling, yet triumphant and tasteful. The violence is alluded to rather than thrust in our faces, allowing for a closer look at the psychological rollercoaster of change and revolution.
An all-star cast with veteran greats like Jane Fonda and Robin Williams makes this movie a delight to watch. You never know who’s going to show up and which historical figure they’ll portray. This element gives the film part of its “wow” factor.
Each performance is nuanced and commanding, even if slightly romanticized. There are only a couple of ill fit castings, but nothing too distracting.
The best part of the film is what makes it universal. It is the relationship Cecil has with his wife, Gloria (Winfrey) and sons, Charlie Gaines and Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo). A challenge for Cecil is serving his family. They force him to confront himself.
Cecil has mastered the craft of “wearing two faces”. The movie’s depth surfaces in the opposing characteristics of Cecil’s two sons. Each boy represents one of those two faces. One is the mild mannered boy who wants to learn and be at peace. The other, the one Cecil fears in himself, thus rejects in his son, embodies the anger and pain.
Louis is the physical manifestation of Cecil’s desire to retaliate, to demand the retribution he was not afforded in the beginning, the justice his Blackness denied him. The face of the butler turns away from it, but his son forces him to stare it down.
There is nothing in the film more symbolic of Cecil’s precarious balancing act, one that Black folks conquered generations ago, than the white gloves he dons in his act of servitude. These gloves are the true emblem of a non-threatening Negro, of Cecil's giving spirit, and of the film's message regarding hospitality.
Black Panthers, Freedom Riders, and Civil Rights icons like Dr. King are given poignant reprieve while “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” demystifies the complicated topic of human rights.
The Academy should be all aflame for this tender tale of American history, while specifically honoring Whitaker, Winfrey, and believe it or not, Cuba Gooding, Jr.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is not perfect by any means, but it is a must see. There is something for almost every type of movie enthusiast. Incredible performances, even for Winfrey who you might think would be laughable as a Black southern mama; historical footage, ornery jokes, complex ideas of human nature and society, politics, a walk down memory lane, and the intricacies of the family dynamic.
It truly is a must see.