Film: Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)
Cast includes: Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), David Banner (Street Kings), Mariah Carey (You Don’t Mess with the Zohan), Alex Pettyfer (I Am Number Four), Vanessa Redgrave (Unfinished Song), Oprah Winfrey (Beloved), David Oyelowo (The Paperboy), Terrence Howard (Crash), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry Maguire), Larry Kravitz (Precious), Robin Williams (One Hour Photo), John Cusack (High Fidelity), James Marsden (X-Men), Live Schreiber (Defiance), Alan Rickman (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2), Jane Fonda (Mother-in-Law)
Writer: Danny Strong (Seabiscuit), Wil Haygood (original article)
Director: Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy)
Genre: Drama | History (132 minutes)
1926, Macon Georgia… “The only thing I ever knew was cotton. It was hard work, but I got to spend all day working with my dad.” That ends suddenly when Thomas up and shoots Cecil’s dad dead. It’s hard to tell what Miss Annabeth is thinking, but after telling the men, “dig a hole for his pa,” she tells young Cecil, “I’m gonna have you in the house now. I’ll teach you how to be a house nigger.” “Quiet” is the watchword. “I don’t want to hear you breathe,” says Miss Annabeth… and Cecil learns well. “Bout time you go ahead on your own.” Miss Annabeth can’t protect Cecil forever. Heading up north, Cecil finds “no job, no food and no place to sleep. Any white man can kill any of us. The law isn’t on our side.” The day Cecil steals food from a hotel, the angels must have been on Cecil’s side because it’s the butler… not the owner… who discovers him. He is planning to send Cecil on his way because he has an important dinner to prepare for. “If you’re looking for help, I know how to serve,” says young Cecil.
By 1957, Cecil is working at the Hotel Excelsior. At this point, he has mastered another art… the art of anticipation. He knows what guests are going to need before they know themselves. Unbeknownst to Cecil, one of the hotel’s guests is Mr. Warner, the man in charge of operations at the White House. No one is more surprised than Cecil when the call comes from the White House… except head butler, Mr. Fallows, who wanted to hire his own man… until he sees the qualities Mr. Warner had seen… “You have a distinct advantage, when it comes to being a house nigger.” [High praise, indeed.] During Cecil Gaines’s long tenure at the White House, he serves many Presidents. Dignity, discretion and dedication are requirements of the job, and Cecil has all that under control. Meanwhile, at the Gaines’s house, the struggles for equality are no different from those of any middle-class black family, and Cecil feels he has nothing under control on that front.
Lee Daniel’s The Butler is an epic story, inspired by a Washington Post article by Wil Haygood about White House butler, Eugene Allen. The movie script takes the experiences of several White House butlers and combines them into a single narrative. Of course, telling an epic story in 2 hours requires moving from issue to issue, without much time for drilling down. It’s a bit of a departure for director, Lee Daniels, who is better known for grittier, darker dramas, such as Precious and The Paperboy. Butler has strong audience appeal because it’s a story that deserves to be told, and indeed, there are many strong moments and excellent performances. If you’re well versed on the history and you’ve seen the trailer, the film won’t tell you very much you couldn’t already figure out. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s an astonishing sweep of history… for the butler, his family and for our nation’s history. The movie takes us from the Coolidge era to the Obama era and gives us a unique perspective as history unfolds. Despite the code he is required to live by… “You hear nothing. You see nothing. You only serve…” Cecil sees quite a bit, and in his own quiet way, plays quite a role.
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Through tumultuous times, butler Cecil Gaines serves eight different Presidents with unwavering dignity and commitment to duty
Rated: PG-13 (Violence)
Audience: Young Adults and Grown-ups
Distribution: Mainstream wide release
Tempo: Cruises comfortably
Visual Style: High-end production
Primary Driver: View of history
Language: True to life
Social Significance: Thought provoking