If there is anything to be learned about “based on a true story” Hollywood adaptations of real life through Lee Daniels’ “The Butler”, it is this: they are hardly ever true stories.
I’ve mentioned this in previous reviews I’ve written (i.e. “Jobs”, “A Beautiful Mind”) but reality is seldom as pretty as fiction, or perhaps not as glamorous. I took the liberty of looking into the factual account of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), or should I say Eugene Allen, who was the real man who served on White House staff for many years. This paragraph is a bit of a spoiler, but Eugene was a man who’s father wasn’t actually shot as a boy. His mother wasn’t brutally raped and left insane. His son was not a political activist, nor his wife a raging adulterous alcoholic, or Oprah Winfrey for that matter.
There are many other things portrayed in “The Butler” that just simply are not true in the real world. “But, Chris,” you might cry out “if it’s all fake, then this movie is probably a waste of my time!”
Upon my first mental review of “The Butler” I could not help but wonder what the purpose of it all was. Daniels has successfully blown an already powerful story way out of proportion. Well, that’s Hollywood for you, folks! Why fix something that isn’t broken?
I’m sure there were some kind of legal liabilities in using the name Eugene Allen as our main character in a film based of off the real-life Eugene Allen. It isn’t to my knowledge, but I don’t believe that’s why Daniels, or screenwriter Danny Strong chose the optional name Cecil Gaines. Daniels is after something bigger here.
“The Butler” exists at some extent to bring to life the story of White House butler for eight presidents, Cecil Gaines, however, at a different level, “The Butler” remains to shed light on the history of African American injustice in the United States over the last hundred years or so. It is by no means a black propaganda or blaxpoitation film, yet the last ten minutes of “The Butler” may give you the former of those impressions.
Cecil Gaines grew up working on a cotton field and from a young age grew to have an appreciation for service to others. Cecil carries this pre-civil rights understanding of humility with him, even through and past the 1960s. He eventually runs far from the cotton fields and lands a few jobs until he is selected as staff at none other than the White House. The nation’s capital seems a beacon of light and hope for the future of the civil rights movement. Cecil, while a servant, receives the chance to spend many meaningful conversations with America’s past presidential leaders, all appropriately cast in my opinion, ranging from Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, to John Cusack as the all-is-lost Richard Nixon.
Daniels cast includes many prominent African Americans, from rapper David Banner as Cecil’s father, to Cuba Gooding Jr. as a fellow White House employee and head butler, Carter Wilson. Lenny Kravitz plays close friend and butler James Holloway, and Terrence Howard is a scummy neighbor with an inappropriately crooked smile.
It’s an ensemble cast of sorts, but Whitaker truly shines here. He is a man who has seen the deep dark hate of racism, and believes in his heart that the times truly cannot change, despite everything happening around him. Even in the 1970s, his mental state was still living with a mindset of slavery and servitude.
Oprah Winfrey plays Gloria, Cecil’s wife. She is a bit trampy, but due only to Cecil’s long, arduous work hours. She is a broken woman in some regards, but does what she can to be a house mom. Her house always has a bit of a washed out, yet warm color palette to it. It’s something you don’t see anywhere else in the film. It feels homely, but it never changes until within the last fifteen minutes of “The Butler” and by that point, we know racial prejudice has changed in North America. We can only wonder if that old color palette reflects how Cecil’s household has changed too.
Daniels spends time showing us the depravity of whites hellbent on pursuing racist arrogance. We see its direct physical and mental effect on the innocent African Americans who are plagued by it, and at the same time, Daniels cuts back to Cecil and fellow butlers, serving those in the White House, who are also, indeed white. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition, and it works extremely well, albeit sometimes painful to watch. It’s a throwback to Tony Kaye’s “American History X”.
In the end, “The Butler” is some kind of triumph, not necessarily in filmmaking as a whole, but perhaps more of a congratulatory note on how far the United States has come with racial prejudice. However, “The Butler” reminds us that not so long ago, our grandparents and beyond were in full recognition that this people group was the dirt and scum of the earth. All because of the color of their skin. Is this not sobering to you at all?
Even as an old man, Cecil walks through the all-too-familiar halls of the White House. The building looks identical as it was many years ago when he first arrived, yet now he has changed, and now the times have changed as well.
Side Note: The high school I attended when I was younger was filled with plenty of kids who ran their mouths off with plenty of filthy language, mostly against blacks. Such a pity they were blinded and would feign ignorance, and most likely they still are that way to this day. Upon closer examination, I discovered the reason for their murky logic was buried in the way they were raised. Yes, indeed, it was their parents who instilled racist superiority in their children. I’m not sure why I felt the need to mention this aside from the afterthought that even though we have achieved black equality through the law, that does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that we have achieved mental equality for our nation. Despite pre-2008 campaign promises, there were thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people who refused to vote for Barack Obama, not for his political stance, not for his senatorial history, but for the color of his skin. We have come so far, but please don’t take my review as the byproduct of an unintentional political message itself.