Dir. Lee Daniels. U.S.A.  20013.

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Written by Danny Strong, Lee Daniel's The Butler is loosely based on the career of Eugene Allen, the head butler at the White House for thirty-four years, serving Presidents from Truman to Ronald Reagan and living through some of the most tumultuous years in American history. The film weaves events through the eyes of the butler (Forrest Whitaker, renamed Cecil Gaines) and his eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo), dramatizing different perspectives on the Black experience. As in many bio-pics, events in Allen's life, chronicled in an article in the Washington Post, are changed for dramatic purposes but the impact of Allen's life remains.

The film follows Gaines as a boy (Michael Rainey, Jr.) growing up on a Southern cotton plantation in 1926 where he witnesses the rape of his mother (Mariah Carey) and the murder of his father (David Banner) by their boss, Westfall (Alex Pettyfer). It's Westfall's grandmother Annabelle (Vanessa Redgrave) who reaches out to the boy and teaches him how to become a good servant, setting tables and cleaning her home or as she puts it, teaching him “how to be the house nigger." After leaving the plantation, the teenage Gaines (Ami Ameen) is mentored by Maynard, an elderly butler at a hotel in North Carolina, who shows him the proper way to serve the white man.

As the adult Cecil becomes a waiter at the Excelsior Hotel in Washington, D.C., he falls in love with and marries Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), a maid at the hotel. Their marriage would survive until his death though strained by his long absences from the house and Gloria's drinking. After years of exemplary service at the hotel, he is recommended by a member of President Truman's staff to work as a servant in the White House. In his training by the maitre d' (Colman Domingo) and the head butler (Cuba Gooding), Gaines is told to see nothing, hear nothing, obey without question, and keep politics out of the job. Though his role is in essence a menial one, he never relinquishes his dignity and humanity, repeatedly asking his supervisor that the black staff be paid wages in line with their white colleagues.

Gaines is present in the oval office when President Eisenhower (Robin Williams) decides on sending federal troops to enforce desegregation in Little Rock, when a drunk Richard Nixon (John Cusack) attempts to promote black businesses as a means of counteracting the growing ranks of black power militants, when LBJ (Liev Schrieber) sits on the toilet barking orders, when a thoughtful JFK (James Marsden) requires help with his back pain while watching civil rights demonstrations on TV, and when Ronald Reagan informs Republican senators that he is going to veto sanctions against South Africa. The segment with the Presidents played by well-known actors, however, is a little more than a sideshow and the weakest part of the film.

As Louis matures, a rift develops between him and his father (younger son Charlie (Elijah Kelly) chooses to fight in Vietnam) as their philosophies for achieving equality diverge greatly, perhaps reflecting the larger context of the peaceful non-violent approach of Martin Luther King and the philosophy of Malcolm X who believed that the fight should be waged by any means necessary, including violence or other aggressive actions. Dropping out of college, Louis becomes an activist in the civil rights struggle, joining the movement to desegregate Woolworth's lunch counters, becoming a freedom rider whose bus is attacked by white-hooded Klan members, enduring beatings and jail terms and flirting with becoming a member of the Black Panther Party, whose emphasis on Black pride led to the Black Power movement and the saying “black is beautiful”.

At a family dinner in which Louis brings his militant girlfriend Carol (Yaya Alafia), the elder Gaines overreacts to Louis' criticism of actor Sidney Poitier and tells him to leave the house, an altercation that sadly lasts many years. It is only when Cecil's view of the importance of his work in helping to achieve Black equality is supported by Martin Luther King, and when he joins his son in a demonstration for Nelson Mandela, that Louis begins to see his father in a different light.

Lee Daniel's The Butler has everything on board to make it a triumph: an outstanding ensemble cast that includes Oscar-worthy performances from Forrest Whitaker and from Oprah Winfrey as Cecil's wife, historical material of towering impact, and a searing family drama, yet, despite these qualities, the film is often heavy-handed and lacking in the subtlety and poetry that transforms melodrama into art.

It only truly comes alive when it moves away from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and out into the street, bringing us to the front lines of the struggle where hate-filled mobs beat young people, black and white, asking only to be served at a lunch counter, where a police confrontation, directed against a peaceful voting rights demonstration in Selma, turns ugly, and where dogs and fire hoses are turned on marchers in Birmingham. If for no other reason than to inform a new generation about the courageous people who were willing to put their lives on the line for freedom and justice, The Butler deserves to be seen.


Howard Schumann

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