An OWNers Review of Lee Daniels’ The Butler: "I am Forever Changed"
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.
The film is, at its core, an emotional exploration of one family’s journey through the civil rights era—an exploration of what it means to use your voice in service, and an emotional journey of what it means to love, understand, accept and respect one another. The film charts the course of both Cecil and Louis’ attempts at inspiring change.
In my opinion, one of the most powerful scenes in the film sees the butlers in the White House setting the table for an official dinner, with all of the attendant finery, china and gold cutlery, while Louis and his fellow students in the James Lawson workshops enter a diner and ask to be served at the "whites-only" counter. This scene provides an emotional juxtaposition of the notion of service and being served and is hauntingly visceral in its unflinching depiction of the emotional turmoil, bigotry and violence the students endure as they seek equality of access and treatment in the diner. While the butlers are helping people be seated and pushing in their chairs at the White House dinner, Louis and his friends are being unseated, literally pushed from their chairs before being beaten, humiliated and arrested. I watched this scene with shock and utter horror, heartbroken at the injustice the students endured, while marveling at the brilliant way Lee Daniels portrays the contrast within the two scenes. When watching the butlers in that scene, the words of Freddie Fallows to Cecil rang in my ears: "You hear nothing. You see nothing. You only serve."
The film poignantly explores the tension Cecil faces between career and family, becoming so wrapped up in the needs of the First Family that, as Gloria says, he neglected his own family. What Cecil saw as providing for his family, Gloria saw as abandonment.
The film is a work of art. What Lee Daniels is able to achieve in this film is nothing short of spectacular! He depicts a sweeping story, told over many presidential administrations, with a huge cast, shifting scenes, beautiful sets and differing eras, incorporating changes in art direction and costuming without ever making anything feel trite, superfluous or marginalized. Each scene is infused with the depth, meaning, authority and significance essential to the characters’ narrative arcs and key in the depiction of the historical evolution of civil rights in this country. Using actual photos from the featured eras and civil-rights protests, coupled with news broadcasts and television footage, Lee Daniels creates a world that takes the viewer on the journey with the Gaines family. Writer Danny Strong’s screenplay puts the Gaines family's experience in a larger, more robust historical narrative with scenes that rooted a grand epic story in moments of quiet grace, longing, grief and joy.
I love this film's attention to detail in the White House scenes, the various protest scenes and in the Gaines family household. Everyday moments are infused with such significance— from Gloria making breakfast and describing her potato salad, to Cecil preparing his first tea service for President Eisenhower and reading a book to Caroline Kennedy. Fashion and costume design are used to delineate time in the film, yet they remain consistent to each character’s aesthetic inclinations and desire to use fashion as personal and political expression. Finally, with set design, whether it is the blue carpet in the president’s bedroom, the silver tea service in the White House, the yellow patterned sheets in the Gaines’ bedroom or the worn furniture in the Lawson workshop, Lee Daniels expertly notes that, just as details make the White House, details make the family, and details make the era.
For me, what resonated most and what brought the film and this story to life were the incredible performances by the actors in the film. Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker is utterly mesmerizing. He uses his expressions, movements and cadence to bring Cecil Gaines to life, with the slowly shrinking posture throughout the course of the film that demonstrates a man bearing the brunt of physical aging and emotional weight. Mr. Whitaker uses every nuance of speech, every pause, every gaze, every inflection thoughtfully and authentically, developing a character that is not only a witness to history, but the very embodiment of it. A master-class performance, Mr. Whitaker is simply sublime.
Oprah Winfrey does the impossible: As a woman known worldwide as a media mogul, talk show host, business leader and philanthropist, she completely disappears into the role of Gloria Gaines. From the moment she appears on screen as Gloria, with curlers in her hair, making breakfast in the kitchen, you can’t help but be pulled in to the story of a woman devoted to her family but longing for connection. Her depiction of regret, loss and understanding is positively transcendent. During a critical moment in the film, when Gloria receives devastating news about the death of her youngest son who is at war, the way Ms. Winfrey registers the news on her face—from initial shock, to pain, to ultimate wrenching anguish—is utterly heartbreaking and completely authentic. While Cecil serves as the anchor to the film, Gloria is the one we most identify with, and that Ms. Winfrey can make her character real, flawed and completely believable is brilliant.
David Oyelowo brilliantly portrays the arc of Louis—from inquisitive teen to civil rights activist, defiant son and politician—all the while maintaining his steadfast commitment to justice and equality, even though the means through which he seeks to achieve these goals go through transition from one era to the next. Finally, all of the supporting players in the movie do the impossible: They imbue their roles with such quiet confidence and steadfast dedication that you completely forget you are watching some of the most popular names in film today grace the screen.
The film’s exploration of history and legacy is profound. What the film did was turn the notion of authoritative voices in history on its head. It asks us to look beyond the photographs of historical events, beyond the frame of the president and political officials to people, like Cecil, who serve silently, assiduously and with conviction. These voices, stories and experiences form the basis of this film. These voices, stories and experiences form part of our history.
Cecil’s story is a profound paradox in a certain sense: He was told to be invisible; yet it is his story, his experience and his trajectory that serves as the basis for not only the film but the exploration of the eras featured therein. As Oprah has often said, "Everybody has a story. Everybody wants to know that the answer to the three following questions is a resounding YES: 'Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say matter to you?'" Cecil is a witness to history, both of his family and the nation. Though not featured in photographs or reported on in newspapers, he represents the voice of a people who, by their very being, served as advocates and activists for change and equality in their daily lives. Gloria’s words to Louis in the pivotal dinner scene ring true for us all: "Everything you are and everything you have is because of that butler."
As tears streamed down my face in the dark theater during the final credits, I realized that Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a film everyone can relate to because it deals with universal themes of love, family, acceptance, equality and identity. It is a film that shows us how far we have come, while reminding us that though our struggles for equality, and against discrimination, may not look exactly the same, they continue to exist and persist and warrant our continued collective attention and action. Lee Daniels’ The Butler has inspired me to explore the different ways I can use my life and voice in service. As the film explored the many ways in which Cecil, Louis, Charlie and Gloria used their lives in service to their families, their communities and their country, I couldn’t help but wonder how I could do the same.
To borrow a turn of phrase from Oprah Winfrey, "What I know for sure" is that Lee Daniels’ The Butler is more than a movie. It is art. It is heart. It is living history and a clarion call to service.
What I know for sure, thanks to Lee Daniels’ The Butler, is that history is not only the words on the page, the images in photos or the dates in the record. It is not simply the news broadcasts or the newsprint of a specific time. It is the heart of every person who lived during the struggle. It is the heart of every person who carries with them now the hopes of those who fought for equality. It is history and legacy, as well as ancestors and descendants. It is the fiber that animates the fabric of a nation and the thread that connects the heart of a people.
What I know I for sure, thanks to Lee Daniels’ The Butler, is that I am forever changed. This film has shown me the many ways in which love animates our experience and flows through our shared humanity: Love of family. Love of country. Love of one another as luminous beings of light, worthy of respect, recognition and equal treatment under the law. We are human. We are equal. We are one.