Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Lee Daniels' The Butler

In Lee Daniels’ The Butler, an elderly Cecil Gaines sits on a lone chair in a White House hall, awaiting we don’t know who, and as he does his thoughts transport him and us to the distant past. It was 1926 in Macon, GA when young Cecil, working the cotton fields, witnesses the plantation master shoot and kill his father. The plantation’s elderly matriarch takes pity on the child and decides to take him out of the fields and make him a house boy, and so his lessons begin. Ms. Annabeth instructs him on the dos and don’ts of good help; telling him she’s not to hear him breathe and that the room should feel empty when he’s in it; lessons he’ll carry long into the future. When Cecil reaches adulthood he leaves the plantation behind in order to chart a new course for his life. Unable to find a job, food, or a place to sleep he has to resort to breaking into the storefront window of a small hotel to steal food but thanks to the kindness of Maynard, an elderly employee, he ends the night with a job. Maynard continues the lessons offered by Ms. Annabeth and when he’s offered a job as butler at an exclusive Washington DC hotel he suggests Cecil be hired in his stead.

It’s 1957 and Cecil (Whitaker) is now a happily married homeowner with two boys; living a life which he could never have imagined. Cecil is still working at the Excelsior Hotel in DC when his quality service and easy camaraderie with the white clientele draws the attention of a visiting White House aide. Having finished his shift, Cecil is at home with his wife, Gloria (Winfrey) and two boys – Louis and Charlie – when he’s contacted by the White House with a job offer for which he’s ultimately hired. The first administration we're witness to is the Eisenhower Administration where Cecil’s privy to some of the pivotal conversations of that time, including the issue of Brown v. Board of Education and Eisenhower’s issuance of an Executive Order (and the accompanying speech to the nation) sending troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to uphold the Constitution. As the years pass, Cecil serves eight American Presidents and in the process bears witness to key moments and events in our history including the civil rights movement, the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Vietnam War.

Throughout his years of service, these conflicts are marked not through their impact on the White House administrations he’s serving but by the way they touch Cecil’s family. Cecil’s fervent dedication to his job causes friction in his home and marriage; Gloria dabbles in a little too much drink and extra-marital affairs; Louis rebels against his father’s seemingly complacent silence in regards to the civil rights battles of the time, and Charlie, torn between his father and brother’s views of the world, tries to become his own man and find his own place in this world and ends up enlisting to serve his nation during the Vietnam War. Through it all, Cecil remains stalwart in his dedication and service, even when that unyielding devotion threatens to tear his family apart.

I loved this movie! Inspired by the true story of Eugene Allen, the movie offers a front seat view of some of the most important events in our nation’s struggle for racial equality. There have been other great movies on this subject, but what makes this film great is not the rundown of facts or depiction of historical moments but the compelling father and son tale which is used as the vehicle to narrate the events of the time. Cecil and Louis offer a stark contrast between two generations and how the events that shaped each of them played a role in the man of action or inaction which they became, and how each in their own way helped to bring about change.

While Cecil plays a passive role in the historic events of the time, his son Louis is bold in his fight for the nation’s consciousness; becoming a freedom rider, marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK), and after MLK’s assassination, taking a more militant stance and joining the Black Panthers. The two are constantly at odds with one another; Louis embarrassed not only by his father’s job but by his seemingly blithe acceptance of the oppression of African American’s of the time; and though Cecil is meek in his acceptance of the status quo, I think it's because he’s lived through so much more pain and sorrow than Louis could ever imagine and he appreciates how far he’s come, plus he has firsthand knowledge of what speaking up could lead to (his father was shot when he objected to the plantation master raping Cecil’s mother).

As you take in the contrast between father and son in the film, you ponder who the real hero in the film is, though in a wonderful scene in which Louis speaks with MLK we get a partial answer. During a conversation on the Vietnam War, MLK questions Louis on his parent’s stance on the war and then questions what his father does; when Louis ashamedly admits that his father is a butler, MLK wisely admonishes him by stating that black domestics have played an important role in history by defying racial stereotypes and while they are perceived subservient, their strong work ethic, trustworthiness and dignified character tears down racial hatred and in reality they are subversive without even trying; so the truth is that each is a hero in their own way. While Louis literally fought for equality, Cecil did so also by winning hearts and minds with kindness; both methods I think were equally important and effective.

The acting was spot on. Whitaker was brilliant in his restraint; he wore his passive silence and warm smile like a uniform, as important to the role as the tux and white gloves. I was totally blown away by Oprah. I really don’t understand why she doesn’t make more movies. She should forget the O magazine and the OWN network and be where she belongs – on the screen; she was that good. Granted her role wasn’t huge, the film was much more about Cecil and Louis, but her every scene whether portraying Gloria’s winsome smile and glowing pride in Cecil early in the film or the combination of sadness and anger as she struggled with her drinking problem during the worst of times with Cecil, there was a wonderful rawness, a realness to her acting that demanded your attention. In addition, to the supporting cast there are quite a few cameo-type appearances (passing portrayals) as the Presidents in the White House during Eugene Allen’s tenure, including Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Reagan.

As to the truth in the tale, the real butler as I said above was named Eugene Allen and his wife was named Helene, both of whom passed away prior to the movie’s release. The film was inspired by an article in The Washington Post entitled “A Butler Well Served by This Election” by Wil Haygood. The article ran on the front page of that newspaper three days after Obama made history in 2008. The director took considerable dramatic license in portraying Allen’s tale; for example, Allen’s father was not killed by a plantation owner and his son (Charles; they only had one not two), was not a political activist as depicted in the film. There were a number of smaller yet poignant details from the movie which were actually real; Allen did receive one of President Kennedy’s tie from Mrs. Kennedy as a gift and the Reagans did invite him and Helene to a state dinner, where it is said that Helene, worried about what to discuss with college-educated people was instructed by her son to talk about her high school experience, and that they’d probably be none the wiser.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler was a truly captivating and moving film that left me awed by the incredible bravery of so many in the fight for equality, proud of the incredible strides our nation has made, and hopeful for the future. Oh, and equally important, it’s a wonderful tribute to a life well-lived; I think Mr. Allen would've been proud.