I had the privilege of seeing Lee Daniels’ The Butler three times during its opening weekend. It is a film I have been anxiously anticipating since it was announced nearly two years ago and Oprah Winfrey shared photos from the set. A dear friend asked me to describe my experience each time I saw the film. The first time, the word I used to describe the experience was emotion. The second time, the word that came to mind was art. The third time, the words, which ruminated in my consciousness, were history and legacy. The consistent thread that animated all of these viewings was that Lee Daniels’ The Butler epitomized artistic excellence, searing insight and emotional authenticity, rooted in a message of equality, love and understanding. It took my breath away and captured my heart.
Inspired by the real-life story of Eugene Allen, Lee Daniels’ The Butler looks at the life of Cecil Gaines, a character who served eight presidents as the White House butler from 1952 to 1986. Cecil witnesses firsthand some of America’s biggest historical moments from within the hallowed halls of the White House, and through the prism of his son’s experience as a civil rights activist at the forefront of the grassroots movement for racial equality. Lee Daniels’ The Butler boasts an all-star cast, led by phenomenal performances from Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo, as well as John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams, Alex Pettyfer, Clarence Williams III and Mariah Carey.
Opening with the above-mentioned quote from Martin Luther King Jr., the film explores the story of Cecil Gaines from his childhood on a cotton farm, where he witnesses the brutal attack of his mother and the murder of his father. These events change the trajectory of Cecil’s life, which eventually leads him to Washington, D.C., and ultimately to his work as a butler in the White House. Along the way, Cecil learns many painful lessons about what it means to live in that era of racism and injustice.
Meanwhile, while we see Cecil’s life as a White House butler through its many administrations, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan, we also witness the impact of this era on his family—his wife Gloria and his two sons, Louis and Charlie. This portrait of a man living in two worlds is nothing short of mesmerizing, because more than demonstrating the multifaceted nature of Cecil’s identity, it serves as an examination of family dynamics, love and methods employed in the struggle for equality. Louis, unlike his father, eschews the path of working for change from within and trusting elected officials to move forward on the path to equality, choosing instead to fight for equality through the many civil rights demonstrations that defined that era—the diner sit-in, Freedom Riders, Martin Luther King Jr. marches and the Black Panther Party.