I am old enough to have lived through the events depicted in director Lee Daniels’ ambitious and often beautifully structured new film LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER, which vividly brought me back to a passionate and tumultuous period in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. While watching the screen in a crowded theater, I was conscious of the vulnerability I felt, like a laceration where only a pinprick of injustice was needed to make the wound open up and ooze anew. But this movie is more than a documentary of “moments in history” it is about the weaving and interlacing of the personal and the political, and how they bounce and bang into one another; about change and turmoil and how they impact not only a nation but a family – based on the true story of Cecil Gaines who became the White House butler serving eight Presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan.
We meet young Cecil Gaines in 1927 working with his parents in the cotton fields when a violent life-altering act changes the course of his existence. Shortly thereafter, Cecil leaves home and meets a generous father figure who tutors him in the art of “service”, and Cecil is masterly at this job - maintaining the critical distinction between one’s inner and outer demeanor. He is so skilled at this position that he is asked to join the White House staff as one of their butlers. Able to be “invisible” is a central aspect of this profession – to be discreet and not comment or remark on what is seen and heard in the “halls of power.” Yet THE BUTLER cautiously implies that Gaines’ presence might have had some influence on crucial determinations that certain President’s took on civil rights legislation. Forest Whitaker is a superb actor depicting Cecil Gaines, not only via the spoken word, but the way he moves his body, the subtle changes in his gait, and the slump of his shoulders as he travels through the vicissitudes of time.
There is an Upstairs/Downstairs aspect to this movie and the film often cuts from Cecil’s rigid, restrained daily routines at The White House to his more natural and relaxed own household supervised by Gloria – a strong performance by Oprah Winfrey who willingly foregoes any “glamour” to reveal a warm, sympathetic mother, and a wife who early on feels neglected by her husband, but is transformed by the incidence of public and personal circumstances – some tragic and others comically tender. There is some fine acting by a supporting cast consisting of Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as fellow White House butlers, and the always imposing soft-voiced Terrence Howard as a neer-do-well neighbor. On the other hand, the casting of the various Presidents was disappointing – most were shown as transparent, simplistic caricatures, their obvious physical attributes were exaggerated and their more essential natures were ignored.
Lee Daniels juxtaposes the changing strategies of The Civil Rights Movement from the early Freedom Rides to the Black Panther Party, via the vehicle of Cecil’s elder son (David Oyelowo,) representing the generational father/son conflict over the revolutionary methods a black man/woman must take in a society that is filled with race hatred and oppression. Interspersing actual newsreels and TV footage of critical moments in America’s historical narrative – ie: the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King added authenticity to THE BUTLER - the kind of authenticity that is piercing and brought back subjective flashbacks to where I had been at those pivotal mileposts.
Lee Daniels gives us a raw, desperate, and excruciatingly brutal view of what the participants in the fight for equal rights endured. They are the heroes/heroines whose struggles are memorialized in this movie; as a counterpoint we are shown the striving of one individual to support his family, and at the same time be a witness to history – albeit a silent one. Developing a second skin of “concealment” is lamentably still a tactic necessitated by racism in our contemporary society.