By David Evans, Regal Radio
This weekend, for the first time in nearly a month, Lee Daniels’ The Butler entered the box office race as something other than a reigning champion.
The sweeping and somewhat idiosyncratic film that lived up to the reputation of its helmer — he whose name is in the title due to certain legal issues the film came across — took on the typical hurdles that can come with the opening of an historical drama, especially one with a largely black cast and geared towards black viewers, clearing them widely in the process.
The only film this year to win three straight weeks at the box office, The Butler came in a clear second last weekend to Vin Diesel’s Riddick but it had already proved its point that people wanted to see this movie and that it will go down as one of the most memorable films of 2013.
The Butler tells the fictionalized story of White House butler Eugene Allen. Lead actor Forest Whitaker portrays Allen as Cecil Gaines, who served under seven U.S. presidents, from Eisenhower through Reagan, from the late 1950’s until the mid ’80s. Gaines’ faithful service to the country comes as a detriment to his family, which includes wife Gloria (masterfully played by Oprah Winfrey), son Louis (played by David Oyelowo in a showcase role) and son Charlie, played by Elijah Kelley).
This movie maintains an explicit relevancy in 2013. I agree with the Washington Post’s Rahiel Tesfamariam, who writes that the film’s success is due very much to it benefiting from a kairos moment, or in other words, its release came at an opportune or purpose-filled time.
The purpose-filled time we currently live in is one where America has a black president, yet African-Americans still experience remnants of Civil Rights era hostility: whether as deeply felt as the racial profiled-based killings of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant, or as widely prevalent as the vitriol spewed by anonymous commentators online, racism still exists and there can be no argument for that. The Butler uses the fictionalized narratives of Cecil and Louis Gaines to show how much progress African-Americans have made in the struggle to obtain civil rights, and how much America still must grow to fully understand and respect those rights.
Directed by Daniels and written by Danny Strong (Game Change), The Butler is a film telling two narratives that run parallel: the story of Gaines serving as a butler to U.S. presidents during a time of significant social change in America due to the Civil Rights movement is the first; the second was the life of his son Louis, who’s character essentially represents the birth and progression of the Civil Rights Movement. In the film Louis serves not only as a member of the Freedom Riders in the 1960s, but as a Black Panther in the 1970s and, finally, as a protester against apartheid in South Africa during the late 1980s.
The caustic relationship between Cecil and Louis is representative of the generation gap between many parents of the time who brought in the Civil Rights Movement in the ’50s (or were at least living through it) and their children, disillusioned and outright defiant within 20 years after their growing up midst the violence and tragedy that the movement was met with in the 60’s, despite the legal gains made during the time. As another decade, the ’70s, came on, both sides showed themselves to be less willing to understand the mindset of the other.
While Whitaker exhibits a masterful performance as Gaines, who navigates the halls of power stoically, but with a watchful eye, the most significant aspect of the movie was it’s characterization of the Civil Rights movement and the pre-Civil Rights Era. The racism endured both by blacks involved and not involved in the movement was harrowing and the movie didn’t flinch when portraying it.
The opening credits of the film show two hanging black bodies from a tree. As the story moves forward, it shows Gaines’ upbringing on the Westfall plantation in Georgia; it is here he witnesses his mother, played by Mariah Carey, being raped by one of the plantation owners, who also kills his father (David Banner) when he attempts to confront him. During the remainder of his youth, Gaines is taken under the wings of the Westfall plantation’s lady of the house (Vanessa Redgrave) and a butler named Maynard (Clarence Williams III), who teaches him the ropes of the profession and alerts young Gaines to the tightrope he walks on as a black man serving white people.
Several years later, when Cecil is a servant at an upscale Washington D.C. Hotel, he serves a politician who is upset about the possibility of black children being integrated in white schools due to the recently passed Brown vs. Board of Education decision in the supreme court. The politician asks Gaines for his opinion and Gaines replies he doesn’t get involved in politics, an answer which sets up a major character trait the adult Gaines carries with him the rest of the film. In 1957, Cecil is hired by the White House maitre d’ Freddie Fallows (Colman Domingo) to be a butler in the White House and tells him, “Oh yes, you will be a good nigger.”
Louis, Cecil’s eldest son, begins to pick up his involvement in the Civil Rights movement soon after the White House transition. In the early 1960s, Louis, a freshman at Fisk University, meets his future girlfriend (Yaya Dacosta) and becomes involved with here in a nonviolent protest program modeled after the real life SNCC or CORE organizations. Louis becomes involved in sit-ins at whites-only luncheon counters in Tennessee and are exposed to derision, having food, hot coffee spilled on them, and beaten by white customers.
Moving forward, Louis rides with Freedom Riders, members of integrated interstate buses, who challenged southern states’ illegal enforcement of segregated busing. Upon reaching Birmingham, Ala., the bus is attacked by white citizens of, including the KKK, who firebomb the bus. Throughout the media run-up to the film, director Daniels has constantly cited shooting this firebombing scene as one of the production’s toughest moments personally and an illuminating moment for him in regards to realizing just what people like the Freedom Riders went through in those days.
The Butler constantly put Louis in harms way during his involvement in the movement and that danger helps create a wedge between father and son — Cecil initially did not want Louis to even attend Fisk as it is in the South (Nashville, Tenn.), where he believed his son would be susceptible to danger.
The majority of the film’s interaction between these characters is charged and it spreads through their family, involving the other members. Things climax in the late 60s, when Louis shows up at a family dinner in full Black Panther Party regalia, speaking defiantly towards his parents in the process. The Butler made good use of an emphatic slap by Gloria on Louis in the film’s previews and ad campaign and despite its early exposure, the scene doesn’t lose power when seen in the full context of the movie.
By the film’s end Cecil and Louis reunite, with the dissipation of the initial Civil Rights Movement in the background, as well as the movement to end apartheid in South Africa and free Nelson Mandela from his three-decade term in prison there. Cecil resigns from his White House service in 1986, Cecil, mostly spurred by Reagan’s refusal to sanction South Africa for its’ practice of apartheid. At a rally to protest the nation of South Africa, father and son meet and are both taken to jail for their involvement.
After a lifetime of steadiness throughout the turbulent times seen by his people, Cecil’s first act of civil disobedience occurs at the age of 65. Twenty three years later, he witnesses what the film presents as the culmination of the civil rights movement — the electing of Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president.
In a interview with Parade Magazine, Daniels stated that upon viewing the film, his 30- year-old nephew asked, in regards to the difficulties the Civil Rights Movement encountered, did this stuff really happen? Sadly, there are many people born after the movement who are unaware of the sacrifices made by their forebears. It has been a long time since a major film has covered the events of the movement in detail. Fortunately, The Butler answers the question posed by Lee Daniels’ nephew for a new generation of movie goers.
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