The annual Academy Awards are still seven months away, but it’s never too early for people to begin making predictions. Although I’m not a big fan of gazing into crystal balls, I nevertheless have no problem offering my opinion that “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” definitely is worthy of Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Forest Whitaker), Best Supporting Actress (Oprah Winfrey), and Best Director (Daniels).
Based upon the true story of Eugene Allen, who served as a butler in the White House from 1952 to 1986, “The Butler” chronicles the life of Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), who grew up on a cotton plantation in Georgia during the 1920s. One day Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer), who owns the place, rapes Cecil’s mother, and when Cecil’s father confronts him, Westfall kills him.
In an act of sympathy, Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave), the plantation’s aged caretaker, brings Cecil into the house to work as a servant, and she teaches him the fine points of serving meals and accomplishing other household tasks. Although Cecil is grateful to the woman, he realizes the ultimately set out on his own, and that’s exactly what he does. Cecil works for a time in a pastry shop under the supervision of a kindly fellow named Maynard (Clarence Williams III), and when Cecil proves to be a stellar pupil, Maynard provides him with a recommendation to work as a servant in Washington, D.C., where Cecil ends up accepting a position in the White House. And as they say, the rest is history.
From 1952 until is retirement in 1986 Cecil served as a butler under eight presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan, and during that time he became the most popular and respected butler in the White House. Because of his position, Cecil is privy to all kinds of inside information about politics, but he learns early on that he is not to utter a word of what he hears being discussed in the Oval Office. Shortly after Cecil arrives at the White House, maitre d’ Freddie Fallows (Colman Domingo) issues the following orders: “You hear nothing. You see nothing. You only serve.”
Cecil and is wife, Gloria (Winfrey), have two sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Eiljah Kelley), and shortly after Louis, the older son, goes off to college, he becomes involved in the civil rights movement, and he even helps to found the Black Panthers. Louis and Cecil clash in their beliefs, and their rocky relationship is a main subplot in the film. In sharp contrast to his brother’s radical behavior, Charlie decides to enlist and serve in Vietnam.
As we follow Cecil’s years in the White House, we do so against the backdrop of major historical events occurring during the administration of each president he serves. Daniels skillfully juxtaposes Cecil’s performing his duties against the violent racial conflicts outside the White House, and through it all, Cecil maintains his composure, his silence, and his dignity.
From its horrendous opening moments until its incredibly moving conclusion, “The Butler” definitely is the year’s best film so far. From its brilliant acting to its stellar direction to its superb sets and costumes to its rousing musical score, the movie is at once powerful, compelling, heart-wrenching, humorous, disturbing, and entertaining. In the film’s production notes director Daniels explained why he thought the story was worth telling.
“The story was important to me because I’d never seen a film that chronicled the civil rights movement, from the beginning into the Obama administration, through the eyes of a father and son. This film puts a perspective on things that people went through, even in my lifetime, so that we could do things like vote. It goes beyond black and white, which was important to me, because it’s a father-son story on top of being a civil rights story. It transcends race, it transcends America — it’s universal. It’s not just a history lesson, but rather the story of a family.”
Also in the production notes screenwriter Danny Strong expressed his feelings about how he hoped people will react to the movie.
“I want the audience to have a better understanding of the history of race in this country. I think if people knew and understood our past better, then I believe race relations would improve at a faster pace. I also think this film celebrates how much we’ve grown as a nation. When you see the events of the Civil Rights Movement dramatized beat by beat, and then you see the election of the first African-American president, it allows us all to be incredibly proud of how far we have come as a nation.”
The cast for a film of this magnitude is necessarily huge, and you won’t find a weak link anywhere. When I first saw the cast list, I was a bit apprehensive about some of the actors playing the parts of the presidents. For example, I had a hard time imagining Robin Williams in role of Eisenhower, but he carries it off beautifully as do James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan
Despite the enormous cast, however, this film belongs to Whitaker and Winfrey, who absolutely light up the screen with their respective portrayals of Cecil and Gloria Gaines. The chemistry between the two of them is simply electric, and they are completely believable as husband and wife. In a recent online interview, Winfrey revealed why she took the part of Gloria.
“Lee (Daniels) was relentless. I remember being on my mountain in Maui, where I go to try to restore myself. And he called saying, ‘You need to get ready, because you are Gloria.’ So I did it to have the opportunity to work with Lee. I also did it because Gloria represented to me every woman of that era who sacrificed herself, never bringing her own dreams to fruition because family took precedence over everything. It’s a story many have not seen with black people in these roles, because usually we’re one extreme or another. But to see that we are people who love our children, who have the same aspirations as everybody else—I just love that.”
Because Cecil must spend so many hours at the White House, Gloria begins to resent his job, and this is an inevitable source of conflict between them. Both Whitaker and Winfrey excel in expressing their emotions verbally and nonverbally, and you won’t see any better acting than this.
In addition to dealing with his unhappy wife, Cecil also must contend with his feelings about Louis, whom Oyelowo portrays beautifully. In the production notes Whitaker points out that in addition to everything else, the film is the story about a father’s relationship with his son.
“It’s also a father-son story. My character represents the old school and the old guard. He is changing opinions by his mere presence in the White House, by his behavior and his acceptance. In a sense, I humanize the black community because the presidents and staff have to deal with me on a human level. Then you have my son addressing those same issues in the streets with the civil rights movement, through things like marches and sit-ins. The conflict is between us and our different generations. All I want is my son to be safe and have a good life; that’s what I think I’m doing in discouraging his activism. The growth for me is to realize that I deserve certain rights too, and it’s through my son that I come to understand that.”
He also explained what Cecil represents.
“In this sense, I think the character of Cecil is a good example of an individual contributing towards shifting larger opinions on race. In the film, Kennedy’s tie and Johnson’s clip are the two gifts Cecil gets and keeps. Both of those presidents shifted policy for civil rights in the country, with Kennedy starting first before being assassinated. Johnson was sometimes called a racist and was vilified for his position on Vietnam, but he also did things that were monumental for human rights in the US and getting laws passed through.”
I certainly haven’t been able to say this about any other film this summer, but I’m saying it now: Don’t miss this one. “The Butler” has Oscar nominations written all over it, and so its score of an unqualified 10 should come as no surprise.
Treat yourself and spend 34 years in the White House with Cecil. Once you’ve met him, you’ll never forget him.