Cecil Gaines has lived through his father being shot in front of him by the slaveowner who raped his mother. He's run away. He's struggled to survive. And then he meets Clarence Williams III's character Maynard, who shows him how to work in a domestic profession. And when he's later hired to work as a butler in the White House, he lives through eight presidents who are extremely different. The irony is while some presidents would walk up and shake his hand or talk to him directly, the person in charge of hiring him wouldn't give him the time of day or a look up from his newspaper (and the Reagan scene made me respect that president slightly more, assuming that scene is true.)
While Cecil just wants to survive, make an honest living and take care of his family, his son Louis wants change. He chooses Fisk University in Tenn., instead of Howard University in D.C. He chooses "finding Love" over finding classrooms. He chooses the Freedom Riders over going to the back of the bus. He chooses restaurant sit-ins instead of the colored area of eateries. And sometimes he rides the line from marching and being in prison with MLK supporters to joining the Black Panther Party before the direction changed.
What's fascinating about the movie is watching how this family all has different perspectives on how to survive being a Black man/woman in an incredibly racist society. Cecil wants to make himself as invisible as possible and be a threat to no one. Louis wants to be heard, seen, respected and doesn't seem to give a damn whether you're threatened by him because of your own racist beliefs. And then there's Gloria, who seems to understand where both father and son are coming from. But as a woman taking care of home and not being able to see her husband, who spends more time at the White House than with her (apparently quite a bit more during Kennedy's term), she's much more interested in keeping the peace in her home versus outside. But outsiders are taking advantage of that with her.
The movie was too intense for me to laugh, but many people in the crowd enjoyed cracking up at some of the lighter moments. Elijah Kelley, who played Cecil's youngest son Charlie, was responsible for most of those. Cuba Gooding Jr.'s character provided the rest. I was amused to watch Oprah Winfrey doing all the latest dances, playing the inebriated role to a tea, and giving us enough attitude to let her audience know she can go there with you if you test her patience.
But I didn't want to see this movie to laugh. Even my original smiles when seeing some of the cast quickly turned into superb respect for owning their roles.
These are the cast members who stuck out: Forest Whitaker (playing Cecil Gaines), David Banner (Earl Gaines), Mariah Carey (Hattie Pearl), Alex Pettyfer (Thomas Westfall), Oprah Winfrey (Gloria Gaines), David Oyelowo (Louis Gaines), Terrence Howard (Howard), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Carter Wilson), Lenny Kravitz (James Holloway) and Yaya Alafia (Carol Hammie).
My first reaction to seeing Alex Pettyfer was "Who put Magic Mike Jr. in this film?" All I could think about was him climbing on tables and stripping. That is, until he opened his mouth. He was pretty good in "I Am Number Four," but he was (uncomfortably) good as a slavemaster. Music artists Mariah Carey, David Banner and Lenny Kravitz long ago proved that they're as good in acting as they are in movies.
With that said, the part of the movie that left me in tears was not the ending. It was the treatment during the sit-in. That scene alone deserves every single movie award the actors deserve (and one or two they probably won't get because of delusional members in certain entertainment industry groups). I was familiar with the Little Rock 9, the Freedom Riders and restaurant sit-ins but to watch what they endured not only to get ready for the sit-ins but at the sit-ins just made tears slowly fall down my face.
"The Butler" is character driven. Anyone who knows African-American history will be familiar with the news events, cultural events and timeline. But watching these characters go through it is what stands out in this film.
Follow Shamontiel on Pinterest for all of her latest TV, book, music and movie reviews; photo galleries; entertainment saving tips and other entries, or subscribe to her National African American Entertainment channel at the top of this page. Also, follow her @BlackHealthNews, and follow this Pinterest board to read her celebrity interviews.