4 Stars — Powerful
Lee Daniels' tale of the civil rights movement in the United States focuses on the story of one man and his family who experience the cataclysmic changes that have taken place over the last century in this country. With an African-American president in the White House, The Butler ends by finally claiming victory over the horrific injustices perpetrated on this persecuted race.
The emotional content of this historical journey is powerful, and the violence is not easy to watch. The main character is based on the true story of Eugene Allen, who worked as a butler for eight American presidents, was invited to a state dinner by the Reagan family, cast his vote for President Barack Obama and saw him elected before he passed away in 2010. However, Allen did not experience the rift in his family that was portrayed in the film nor did he have a son who, in Forrest Gump-style, participated in virtually every significant moment in civil rights history.
The Gaines family, created by Daniels (Precious) and based on the writing of Danny Strong, is headed by Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). Having begun his life working in the cotton fields alongside his parents as field servants in the segregated south of the 1920s, Cecil sees his father (David Banner) shot in cold blood. The killer (Alex Pettyfer) had brutally raped his mother (Mariah Carey), and when Cecil prodded his father to do something, it cost him his life. This event changed the direction of Cecil's life, since the mother of the killer (Vanessa Redgrave) brought the boy inside her plantation house to be trained to be a house servant.
The path from cotton picker to chief butler of the White House is indirect yet believable as Cecil demonstrates an unusual ability to serve with dignity. But the more powerful story is found in what happens in Cecil's family and in the White House's interactions with the civil rights movement.
Cecil marries the voluptuous Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and raises two very different sons. His older son, Louis (David Oyelowo), is an idealist who is committed to bringing about political change for social and legal racial equality. His younger son, Charlie (Isaac White), takes the opposite path and enlists to serve in the Vietnam War, explaining to his brother: "You are fighting against your nation and I am fighting for it." Disagreeing with both of his sons' choices, Cecil becomes the "everyman" father of young black men during that era.
The civil rights movement takes the film from the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman). Presenting each president only from the perspective of their attitude toward civil rights, we also find Louis present in virtually every significant moment of the civil rights movement. He is a part of the inner circle of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Nelsan Ellis), the founding of the Black Panther Party and the leader of the protest against apartheid in South Africa, as only a few examples.
The emotional and political journey of one African-American family from the 1920s segregated South to the election of a black president is powerfully effective. Dr. King observes the subtle power that resides in the black domestics' daily access to the most powerful leaders of the world during these societal changes.
Through Cecil's faithful service to the presidents and their families, we see how these black servants who were known and trusted by those at the highest levels of power humanized the racial issues and put a face on the injustices that needed to change. This influence is seen even more when Cecil attempts to obtain a higher wage for the black employees of the White House equal to that given to the white employees.
Corrected finally by the Reagan White House, the realization that racism has been persistently reinforced at all stratas of society causes all of us to stop and examine where racism still exists in our own lives as well. This makes the film not only a moving celebration of the historical victory of the civil rights movement but a reminder that full equality is not yet complete, which is a powerful and worthy message.
» As we look back at the 1950s segregation and the 1960s social upheaval to bring about reform, we see it with the eyes of a nation that has recently elected a black president. What injustice do you think the eyes of those 50 years from now will see in our current culture that needs to change? Why do you answer as you do?
» The inability of Cecil and Louis to work through their issues is a microcosm of our larger struggle as a nation to do so in many areas. Why do you think we refuse to sit down with others and work together to find solutions? Why do we divide into sides and attack the other?
» Dr. King's observation that getting to know one another as humans best ends racism is a powerful insight. Have you found it helpful in your own life? Do you purposefully get to know people different from yourself? How has that changed prejudices in your own life?
— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.