Why The Butler is Awesome

Lots of big names, lots of historical events but Forest Whitaker is a constant wonder throughout” 

One of the opening shots of The Butler is a quote from Martin Luther King set against the background of two African Americans hanging. The importance of the subject matter hits the audience in the gut immediately; this film is going to feature some of the unspeakable cruelty that surrounded the fight for freedom and equality in America. The Butler stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, who grew up on a cotton farm and watched his father killed for no reason by his white master. Vanessa Redgrave takes pity on him, and he is taught how to serve in the house; when he gets a little older he leaves and works as a waiter and butler. He is quiet and conscientious and, after being noticed by an employee of the White House, he is hired to be a butler to the President. Throughout his service he sees eight Presidents, world turmoil, the ongoing civil rights movement and personal difficulties and tragedies.

Cecil Gaines is not a political man; he is polite and quiet and serves with a fair amount of enjoyment. He is a simple man working hard to provide for his family. He listens but does not react to nor judge what he hears around him, even when it concerns him most deeply. He carries on doing his job and working under unequal conditions. Forest Whitaker is unquestionably exquisite in this role - he simply is Gaines. He has mastered the southern drawl, which also appears in a reflective narration throughout the movie, as well as the mannerisms, and does so so entirely you truly forget it is Whitaker at all.

An Oscar worthy performance from Forest Whitaker

Whitaker is matched by Oprah Winfrey in a performance not seen since The Color Purple. Hiding underneath the many wigs she wears in the movie is a wife dedicated to her husband. Even when she never sees him and resents his work place; she supports her husband and knows what he does to provide for her and their sons. One son is involved strongly with the civil rights movement and the generation gap is most apparent in the scenes between father and son, played brilliantly by David Oyelowo. Cecil wants to keep his head down and abide by the laws that have been made for them. His son believes in an equal society and will fight to the death if necessary to achieve it. There is little closeness between the two and this is only widened when Louis Gaines is involved with events that are making headline news around the country.

 Whitaker and Winfrey make a believable couple

The film is really an epic father and son story: both struggle to see the others side. Cecil even says “I believe we are living in two different worlds”. Director Lee Daniels is portraying a time where there was controversy in the African American society; there was a divide between those trying to make a difference despite the cost, and those too frightened to do anything that might cause trouble. This divide has split up the Gaines household and continues for many years. Cecil’s job is made especially difficult in the Nixon era, as his work and personal life collide when his son is part of the Black Panther movement that is causing the White House so many issues - many times Cecil has to make a choice between his family and the White House.

 

The fictionalised story of Gaines and his son gives this film its punch

Lee Daniels has created a superb film for the ages that highlights some of the more horrific moments of America’s history. It is this that is his main focus for the film to show the civil rights movement through the experiences of Cecil Gaines son. In real life, the story of Cecil Gaines is based on long serving White House butler Eugene Allen, and Daniels is careful to state that they have taken elements of his story and put them on film. In real life Allen only had one son and he had no involvement in any civil rights, but did go to Vietnam as the younger of the Gaines sons does.

The equality plot is an undercurrent throughout and this timeline is shown with the passing of Presidents through the White House and their stance on the issues. Each President’s role is very brief, and some make more of a mark than others. None of the actors have been made to look exactly like their counterpart, rather they have characteristics and noticeable additions using make-up. All of the actors have worked on the accent, as this is obviously one of the most noticeable things about each, and this also helps with the character they become. They cannot be made to look identical to their character but the similarity is enough to give them the air of the part. This also proves that the attention to detail was not ridiculously over the top, and the performance was more important than the look.

Robin Williams plays Eisenhower, sympathetic to the African Americans plight, and Williams has been aged considerably for the role, but it's a “blink and you’ll miss it” turn in a film so full with characters and events. James Marsden is a great choice for the young, dashing John F. Kennedy, again a sympathetic and likeable character with a brief role, but one that has a major effect on Gaines. Liev Schreiber’s Johnson comes across as a rather volatile man, struggling with the era in which he is leading his country, as is John Cusack’s Nixon in a noticeably unlikeable role, contrary to many he usually portrays. Alan Rickman’s Reagan is the last President to feature in the film and his comes across as a more hospitable and grateful President to Gaines, as does Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, who looks the most like her character in the film.

Like the Presidents, there are many historical events featured in the film - most that are still recognisable today for their significance in history - but it seems like they are skipped over very quickly, especially as Gaines ages. There is so much to see in this film that we barely scrape the barrel of most events and barely get an impression of the characters before they are whisked away as we speed ahead. This is my only issue with the film; it is a wonderful, heartfelt story about a man who in his own way does what he can to make a difference in a rapidly changing world. It is a film about equality and a film about freedom, yet I just wish there was time to focus on elements more closely than they were able. It is an important addition to the cinema anthology, particularly as it is so important to remember how we got to where we are now and how much can still be improved in this world; a mini masterpiece of the American historical timeline.

This has been Mary for The Awesome Update

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