As Black History Month draws to a close, I have heard some of the usual suspects on talk radio and on TV still complaining about it. I am not sure why after all these years, but the annual celebration of Black History Month always comes into question. People say, “Well, we don’t have a Native American History Month or an Irish History Month” and so on. While these people are rehashing old arguments, they do not diminish the fact that there are many powerful reasons to celebrate Black History Month. I invite you to sit down and watch Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and once you have experienced the film, I doubt you will ever question why we have a month devoted to black history.
Director Daniels and writer Danny Strong have crafted an epic story covering many turbulent decades in the 20th century. By having our hero Cecil Gaines bear witness to some vivid atrocities, to see the horror of racism, the sometimes sordid behind the scenes political machinations, and to get to know some of the men who sat on the Oval Office, we are given a bold but unique view of America at its best and worst.
The always brilliant Forest Whitaker, one of our finest actors and surely also one of the most unappreciated, plays Gaines with a combination of dignity and compassion. He experiences the trauma early in his life of seeing his father murdered by a white owner of the farm where they work. His father’s only crime was to stand up to the wealthy man who had raped his wife, and for that he is shot in the head. From that point on a young Cecil knows he has to get out of that area, make his way north, and change his life.
Along the way Cecil meets a cast of characters portrayed by some of the finest actors of our times. The list is too long for our purposes here, but imagine a cast that includes such notable thespians as Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Fonda (as Nancy Reagan), Cuba Gooding Jr., Oprah Winfrey (as his wife Gloria), Clarence Williams III, Liev Schrieber (in an amazing portrayal of LBJ), and Robin Williams (as President Eisenhower), and you can understand that Mr. Daniels has used every resource to make this film shine brightly.
The thing is that we can briefly get caught up in all this window dressing, enjoying the good fun of spotting each celebrity. It took me a while to realize that it was Alan Rickman portraying Ronald Reagan, until he gave himself away with a slightly Snape-like piece of business (won’t mention exactly what here). Alongside Fonda (in a killer Nancy impersonation) the two almost seem like figures at Madame Tussaud’s museum rather than real people (which I think is Daniels’ whole point).
Still, despite some fine performances and delightful cameos, the core of this film is Cecil Gaines – a man of decency, integrity, and some ambition – and his reaction to each president. As his status as a “butler” enhances his life (and that of his family) Gaines feels confidence and security that his parents never knew; however, as his eldest son Louis (a powerful David Oyelowo) attends Fisk University and becomes increasingly militant, Gaines is at first conflicted but eventually rejects Louis and his world by throwing him out of the house when he comes home for a visit.
The story is Cecil’s journey to recognition of realities that he may have not understood or even wanted to see. Even though his work as a butler has provided for his family, he also comes to an awareness of the profound injustices that black people still experience (such as black workers at the White House getting paid less than white ones). As Cecil’s standing and reputation increase, Cecil speaks up for his fellow workers and himself in an effort to change the policy.
Along the way the his wife Gloria supports him but also appreciates that his work as the White House butler has provided a life she could never have known otherwise. She too is angered by Louis, who ends up joining the Black Panthers, and then their younger son Charlie (Elijah Kelley) enlists and goes to Vietnam. Both Gloria and Cecil are shaken by these developments and begin questioning what is going on in the world in more realistic ways.
The story takes Cecil from his beginning days in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s White House through to his retirement under Ronald Reagan. These were some of the most troubled times in our country, and the unparalleled vantage point of Cecil’s position gives the viewer a window into a world the public rarely sees.
Through it all Whitaker’s Gaines stands as an admirable figure who endures abuse and earns respect, and the tale of his life becomes a story that unfolds against a stark reminder of some of the most repugnant elements of American history. These are things that warrant telling, and the film is an excellent opportunity during Black History Month (or any other month for that matter) to allow people to consider the truth of the American black experience from a necessary and compelling perspective.
Lee Daniels has given us a powerful, honest, and bittersweet portrayal of one man’s story that mirrors decades of struggle, of violence, and hard-won victories for all Americans. The loss of men such as John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King are noted as part of the sad fabric of difficult times, but there is also the awakening of awareness and freedom that culminates for a long retired Cecil when Barack Obama is elected.
The Butler needs to be seen, but the PG-13 rating does merit a warning for younger children. My daughter (in junior high) saw it with me and got a little upset with some scenes, but she also learned so much, and I think that she wouldn’t have been any less shaken by something like The Hunger Games.
You should see The Butler whenever you can to enjoy powerful performances – incredulously Whitaker and Winfrey were not nominated for Oscars – and a rich story that is not just for blacks but for all Americans and citizens of the world. The truth shown here is one we all need to witness and understand because, even with Mr. Obama in the White House, in matters of race in America it’s obvious we have miles to go before we can sleep.