Released to theaters Aug. 16, 2013, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a true homage to the American spirit.
The film was inspired by a 2008 article released in the wake of President Barack Obama’s election called “A Butler Well Served by This Election.” The article was written by Washington Post reporter Will Haygood, who went on to write his New York Times best seller, “The Butler: A Witness to History.” The article uncovers the awe-worthy life of Eugene Allen, a Black American who served in the White House throughout 8 presidencies, or from Truman to Reagan. Director Lee Daniels (Precious) was inspired by the piece and created the film alongside writer Danny Strong (Mad Men). The film is based closely on Allen’s life, but is fictionalized for the sake of style and a greater purpose.
Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, the man based on Allen. Whitaker is just one big name on a long list of stars that form the cast. Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alan Rickman, James Marsden, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Robin Williams and so many more noteworthy actors grace this historical drama.
The film follows Cecil Gaines, a man born into a family of Georgian sharecroppers and forced to begin his legacy as so many American blacks had; in the field. Abused by overseers, Gaines’ mother (Mariah Carey) was physiologically unsettled, and his father (David Banner) was killed for speaking out against the abuse. Young and orphaned, Gaines was given an opportunity that shaped the rest of his life; he was taught to serve. After leaving his home behind to seek better employment, Gaines eventually made his way to Washington D.C. While serving in a hotel, he was discovered and hired onto the White House staff.
Gaines worked in the White House from 1952 to 1986 under various presidents who were dealing with major racial and social issues in the United States. The film goes back and forth between the pressures of the White House and the pressures of black Americans who are being called to action. One such black American was Gaines’ oldest son, Louis (Oyelowo) who found himself as part of some of the greatest political and social movements in American history. A dramatic piece, the film is full of harsh, touching and thought-provoking moments. There is a relatable depth to how the film depicts life, tragedy truth and love that many historical films omit.
In Lee Daniels’ The Butler, black America finds itself represented in yet another historical film and paves the way for other films, set to be released this year. These include Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Ryan Coogler’s Fruitville Station. In the wake of Quinton Tarintino’s Django Unchained, many are left to contemplate the validity of the history displayed in the film as it has been fictionalized. Lee Daniels’ The Butler is successful in that, while it is not a true biography of Eugene Allan’s life, it is a testament to black America and how far it has come.
The film does a wonderful job of showing not only the tumultuous life of a domestic worker and his family, but it also effectively portrays American history. By blending scenes of the White House with actual scenes from various black movements, the film is reminding moviegoers that black history is in fact American history. The associated feelings of shame and pride belong to all of us as citizens, and for those well versed in black history, you will see those themes incorporated into the film in various expressions. One notable allusion is the mentioning of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s We Wear the Mask to explain the two faces that black American’s must bear through oppression. For those without much learning in black history, the film will capture the atmosphere of those extraordinary years quite well.
The film also succeeds in following an accurate timeline, whereas too many Black history movies take bits and pieces of the Civil Rights and brush over other important events. The audience is not told, but rather shown that many pivotal moments, including the implementation of Jim Crow laws, the assassination of numerous influential leaders and the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, were not isolated incidents. Though it may seem difficult to conceptualize, it is beneficial to see that all of these world-changing events happened in the course of one man’s lifetime.
Unfortunately, The Butler can be viewed as deceptive because it gives the impression that America has come “full circle” on racial issues. In the end of the film, Gaines has the opportunity to meet current President Barack Obama. After having served only white presidents in a racially divided country, this would seem to be the end of a long and hard journey for black Americans. It is not. Present-day racial issues are neglected, and the film does the viewer a disservice by failing to connect issues of the past to the present. Though America has come very far regarding social change, the journey is not over. Having a black president (or even multiracial president) brings forth premature thoughts of a “post-racial America.” Racial discussion surrounding current events such as the Trayvon Martin case and immigration legislation would prove this idea unsubstantial.
The Butler is dedicated to those who fought to gain equal rights for all in this country, and it does them justice. Their struggles and triumphs are shown by following a range of Americans, from those on the front lines to those at home behind the television. If anything should be taken away from this film, it is the memory and honor of those who fought for everything in place today. Those who struggled and gave their lives so that all can enjoy of the privileges we have as Americans. The film goes beyond thanking black crusaders, but also recognizes feminists, the LGBT community, union workers, as well as every American who has made this country a better place to live. The movie tells not only one man’s story, but the story of a generation of people who are strong and passionate enough to say, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”