Making the Grades
Director Lee Daniels brings together an impressive cast for his movie The Butler. Marching through the Oval Office as America’s Top Executive are Robin Williams, Liev Schreiber, James Marsden, John Cusack, and Alan Rickman. Jane Fonda, Wanda Leigh and Minka Kelly play different First Ladies.
But the high-powered political leaders aren’t the subjects of this film. Rather it is the carefully-dressed figure standing unnoticed in the shadows until he is called on to serve. For Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), the position of butler is a long way from his early roots. Born on a cotton plantation in the Deep South, he watched his mother (Mariah Carey) raped and his father (David Banner) brutally murdered before he was taken inside the big house by the one of the white women (Vanessa Redgrave) and trained to be a houseboy.
Leaving the farm as a young adult he does domestic work in several establishments before being offered a position at the White House. There, in white gloves and a bow tie, he witnesses the making of history on an intimate level as one U.S. president after another serves during the turbulent years of the Civil Rights movement.
At home Cecil faces rough waters of another kind. His wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) turns to the bottle to keep herself company while he is away at work. Angry and inebriated, she and Cecil find themselves growing apart. Meanwhile their oldest son Lewis (David Oyelowo) joins an underground group fighting for equality and repeatedly finds himself in jail. The father and son’s differing opinions on racial injustice tear a rift in their relationship.
The film’s brief, graphic violence includes a shooting, two men hanging by their necks in the street and riots spawned by race and war. Frequent profanities (many from the country’s top leaders), alcohol use and an off screen rape also add to this script’s content issues for family viewers.
However considering the incredible cast, sets and editing in this movie, Lee Daniels’ The Butler should elicit more emotion than it does. Cramming a miniseries worth of story into a two-hour time frame may contribute to the film’s hurried pace and superficial exploration of some of American history’s most troubled times.
But Cecil’s character could be the film’s biggest problem. Although Whitaker does an amazing job playing the stoic servant, Cecil is a man trained to have no opinion, to not speak unless spoken to and to spend his time anticipating the needs of white folk, many of whom neglect to see their own part in racial discrimination. While his impassive stance serves him well in his role at the White House, his lack of passion makes him difficult to connect with personally—even if he has had an insider perspective on American history makers.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
This movie is actually based on the experiences of Eugene Allen. Learn more about his life.
Although Cecil’s son despises the work his father does, how does this quiet butler influence the white people he works for? Are rebellions and riots the only ways to influence social changes?
What racial challenges did the South continue to experience even after the end of the Civil War? Why is it so difficult to change ideology and long-held beliefs? What racial, economic and social problems are still around today?
After working for famous people, some employees resort to tell-all books detailing the weakness and personal lives of their former employers. Is Lee Daniels’ The Butler a negative exposé on the White House or does it give viewers a more personal look at the daily lives of the people who reside there? Is this movie too sanitized?