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Movie Review: ‘The Butler’

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Life as an African-American in the 1920s was no fairy tale.  Especially the life of an African American male.  Lee Daniel’s The Butler follows the life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) as he serves eight different Presidents over the course of 32 years.

Field Workers

Inspection time

Cecil learned at a young age to be invisible.  Raised on a cotton plantation, his father firmly instructed him that the key to survival was to keep his head low and not to get into any rifts with white people.  Upon his father’s murder, Cecil is promoted from a “field nigger” to a “house nigger” which he feels is a golden opportunity.  Reality hits Cecil as the instructions from Mistress of the house were: “When you serve in the house, I don’t even want to hear you breathe.”

Cecil excels at his new role, but he knows his survival hinges on relocation.  He makes the decision to run but finds that life is no better in the North.  Unable to find food, employment or shelter, Cecil makes a decision that could and should have resulted in his death; but instead, fate smiles upon him and he is given a chance that will set him on the path that will change his life forever. He is given a job as a butler at a hotel and is mentored by Maynard (Clarence Williams III) who teaches the difference between merely being a butler and understanding the art form behind being a truly dynamic butler. Cecil perfects his craft by honing his skills as a butler.  His tenure as a butler is impeccable which leads to him being presented with the opportunity of a lifetime.

The start of greatness

The Lessons begins.

Lee Daniels is known for his direction of Monster’s Ball and Precious.  The Butler is a dynamic step toward directing greatness.  He goes out on a limb and casts actors and actresses who have passed their rites of passage but wouldn’t be the publics first pick but none the less do a wonderful job in the role they are cast in.  His seamless transition from emotional to factual to historical to family to Cecil’s personal struggle are instrumental in the films success.

Andrew Dunn’s cinematography is nothing less than stellar.  He captures so many priceless moments that it leaves you breathless.  The hues transition perfectly corresponding with the emotional dynamic.  The attention to detail at key moments was paramount in the delivery of a heartwarming film. I greatly appreciated the fact that Dunn created his own dynasty and re-creation of historical moments instead of solely depending on historical clips. You could visually see and feel the intensity of the moment which delivered a superior movie experience.

Edward Joubert and Brad Manis deserve accolades for their special effects work. I am not talking about bullets whizzing or blood splashing, but the graceful transition of the actors and actresses as they aged.  I am talking about the realness of the sit-ins and the jail scenes. I am talking about the portrayal of the presidents of the United States.  The scenes in which the students stage the sit-ins were so gripping that it stirred strong feelings from everyone in the theater.

The Butler

Forest Whitaker’s first day at The White House

The White House presents an excellent opportunity for Cecil.  As he is now married with a family of his own, this new occupation cements Cecil in his determination to protect his family from the horrors that he was exposed to growing up. However, life is not without complications even when fortune smiles upon you.  The world around Cecil begins to change.  This presents a complex set of problems for Cecil.  As he is locked in a mentality that has allowed him to survive and prosper for years; Cecil meets with intense internal conflict when blacks begin to speak out against the injustices to which they are subjected.  The controversy hits home for Cecil as someone very close to him picks up the Civil Rights cause and grates against the foundational values embedded within.

The Butler powerfully delivers the story of the African-American’s experience as the were forced to dehumanize themselves in order to survive in a white man’s world. It shows how they were forced to exist in a world where their very presence was a bother.  The life and success of many hinged on their ability to serve with grandiose splendor; no matter the emotional maelstrom raging inside.  The film highlights many important moments in both African-American history and the history of the United States.  From the meetings at Fisk University, which were the catalyst for the Nashville Sit-Ins, to the rise of Civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.  We catch the birth of The Black Panther party as well as the participation from Malcolm X. The nation is drawn into the Vietnam War where we lost so many.  The climate of the country rapidly changes as we move from blatant intolerance to grudgin acceptance.

Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Vanessa Redgrave, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, Jane Fonda, Robin Williams, Clarence Williams III, John Cusack,  James Marsden, Alex Pettyfer, Liev Schreiber, Alan Rickman and of course, Forest Whitaker all deliver Oscar-worthy performances.

Oprah convincingly portrays a loving mother and devoted housewife.  She fully supports her husband’s profession but is caught in the crossfire as Cecil becomes more and more drawn into his work, neglecting his children, home, and her.  Oyelowo’s defiance and passion rips through the screen early on.  Pettyfer’s bigotry, racism and murderous persona oozes from his pores.  Williams’s realistic but fatherly guidance warms your heart.  Redgrave’s portrayal as the mother of a racist murderer causes your blood to boil one moment but then as she shows a sliver of kindness, you are tempted to regard her with a bit of tolerance.

The Butler is a graceful narrative of the life of those who served in silence.  Although they were regarded as less than human, these men were relied upon to keep The White House running flawlessly.    Their powerful presence were not acknowledged in words or deeds, but the White House would not have functioned at full capacity with out them and that speaks volumes.  Their opinions may have subtly shaped the world as we know it. It serves as a testament of the epitome of real strength and valor.  It is a great show of sacrifice. It is amazing how dedicated these servants were and how they served selflessly day in and day out.  As Cecil and all of the butlers know, they are faceless servants who’s task is to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil; even when the conversations hit close to home. .  A Butler’s place is not in politics.  A butler has no opinion. At all times, he must remember that his job is solely to serve.

A Butler is simply….The Butler.

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About Diabolique Belle

I am unique by design. Creative by default. Bold by choice. The writing gods have demanded homage: I am here to comply