Inspired by the life of Eugene Allen, a butler who served the White House for 34 years until retiring in 1986, Lee Daniels and co-writer Danny Strong present a powerful story about the complexities of the civil rights movement in the United States. Lee Daniels’ The Butler features an abundance of famous actors including Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, a strong-willed butler who is proud to serve his country, and Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines, his persistent and loyal wife. A plethora of other well-known actors grace the screen including Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Robin Williams, John Cusack, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, Alan Rickman, and Jane Fonda.
In three tumultuous decades Cecil serves eight Presidents and experiences the civil rights movement from both a political and social perspective. Gaines has two sons, both of which have completely distinct visions of racial equality and the ways in which to achieve it. Charlie, played by Elijah Kelley, is Gaines’ youngest son and has similar views on social justice as his father – preferring to fight for his country rather than against it. Gaines’ eldest son Louis is remarkably portrayed by David Oyelowo. Louis joins the freedom fighters during college and becomes an activist fighting alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and later as a member of the Black Panther Party. Louis and Cecil’s relationship suffers as the civil rights movement progresses – a result of their completely different views on racial injustice, political progress, and equality.
Though not without flaws, The Butler’s strength is in its realistic representation of the civil rights movement and the complexities of black American culture. The film begins with Gaines as a child, working on a cotton farm and encountering first hand the disgusting mistreatment of his own people. Once Gaines becomes old enough to leave the south he does so without ever looking back. Keeping his sons away from the world he experienced in his youth becomes one of the most important things he believes he can do as a father.
What’s compelling about The Butler is the way in which the viewer experiences the civil rights movement through the eyes of Gaines, the White House, and his family. For most of the film Gaines accepts his role as a subservient White House butler. Heeding the advice of his late father, he recognizes that he is living in a white man’s world and must abide by their rules. Gaines takes immense pride in his work despite the fact that he is at times treated as less of a man than those he serves. While much of Gaines’ focus is on his work and service, his wife Gloria is instead focused on her family and how they transition through such turbulent times. His two sons, particularly Louis, face the civil rights movement as young men – searching for their own identity in the midst of an evolution. Every cultural shift is addressed with realism, expressing that there was no distinctly right or wrong way to approach the civil rights movement, particularly as a black American.
The Butler highlights a time in which bravery and heroism were not distinctively defined, but rather determined by the individual and the context of their social experience. At the crux of the story is the relationship between Cecil and Louis, and their vastly different methods for creating change. For the majority of the film Cecil obediently accepts his status as “lesser than” while Louis fights to change it, each believing the other is intrinsically wrong in their approach. By the end of the film they learn that neither is wrong – just different. Their two separate ways of thought are similar to the duplicity alluded to in Cecil’s description of the “two faces” of a butler – the one he shows while he’s serving others and his true self. This concept has been discussed often in black history, most notably as the idea of “double consciousness” in W.E.B Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. The idea of double consciousness describes the two identities of black Americans: the side they show to white people, and who they really are.
Though the root of the epic is both powerful and empowering, The Butler is impractical at times – overindulging in drama and costume at the cost of making some critical moments seem ridiculous. Most performances are bold, though some seem out of place including James Marsden as John F. Kennedy. While Forest Whitaker and David Oyelowo shine in their roles, Oprah Winfrey stands out as delivering the most commanding performance. She portrays Gloria Gaines as a passionately loving mother and wife whose flaws only highlight her strengths.
At times Daniels depends far too much on emotion and grandeur, but overall Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a powerful tribute to the journey of those who have fought against social injustice and those who have experienced it. It without doubt falls into the category of one of this year’s must see films.