When movies are based on people in history or actual events, the movie-going public has a bad habit of making the assumption that they are watching real history or a documentary. The movie, “The Butler,” may be one of those movies.
While movies based on history or historical figures should be appreciated as entertainment rather than a history lesson, most of these types of movies do serve the purpose of providing insight, though sometimes exaggerated, into history.
“The Butler” stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, a White House butler loosely based on the real-life of Eugene Allen, who served in the White House from President Dwight Eisenhower to President Ronald Reagan. We must always assume that Hollywood will take artistic license with actual history, but like so many movies based on real people and real history “The Butler” weaves actual news footage and recreates actual events to lend a new perspective to the black point-of-view on racism in America.
Even though I was too young to experience or completely understand the height of racism and the fierce opposition to the fairness of integration, I do have some memories of the separation of whites and blacks in America. I have a vivid memory of asking my Dad why there were separate water fountains – one for “whites” and one for “coloreds.” I don’t remember what his specific answer was because before asking the question I had already determined in my young mind that separate fountains were a gross injustice.
And yet, separate water fountains for “whites” and “coloreds” was a microcosm of racism in America not too many years ago.
“The Butler” captures the grave injustices forced on blacks by White America and as I watched the movie I was, at times, deeply embarrassed at how this great country justified its treatment of blacks. But I did remind myself that there were many white
Americans who were so appalled by segregation that they fought for righteous equality.
This movie also did an excellent job of exposing the reality that the blacks who were part of the white world had two faces – their own and the one they show the “white folks.” I can’t imagine not being free to be true to myself because of my skin color. Admittedly, we all conform to some degree, but for society to not allow any person the freedom to be true to themselves because of something as innate as race must have a fundamental impact on the psyche of an individual.
Forest Whitaker was so perfect in the role of Cecil Gaines, the White House butler, that I can’t imagine anyone else playing the part. Whitaker has that wonderful quality of being comfortable and congenial, without giving up the quality of strength. The character was a very humble man and in all the interviews I have seen of Forest Whitaker, I sense that disposition is part of his actual being.
If “The Butler” has a flaw it is in the casting of too many stars. To call this a star-studded movie is an understatement. The obvious goal was to cast big-name stars in roles that would have been better with people who looked more like the characters we all know.
John Cusack was not a convincing Richard Nixon and I was distracted by his appearance as Nixon. The same can be said of Liev Schreiber as LBJ. Robin William was acceptable as Dwight Eisenhower, but British actor Alan Rickman did a sensational job of capturing the spirit of Ronald Reagan.
Oprah Winfrey did a good job of acting in the role of the butler’s wife, but since Oprah is so defined by her roles in real-life, it wasn’t until the last part of the movie that I suspended my image of Oprah, the person, and accepted her as Cecil Gaines wife. And Cuba Gooding, Jr. was well cast as a member of the White House serving staff.
The fact the Mariah Carey played Cecil Gaines’ mother who was raped by one of the white plantation bosses should have been an indication that the producers of the movie were going after as many stars as they could fit into the script. However gratuitous it was, Jane Fonda was striking as Nancy Reagan.
“The Butler” is an excellent movie that is worth seeing, even with the distraction of too many stars. The movie lends insight into a perspective on America that is important for all of us to know and yet, easy for us to dismiss because it is a very uncomfortable part of our past. In the movie, President Kennedy talked to the butler and confessed that he never really knew what blacks in America were going through.
There were several subplots in the movie that added depth to the story of the butler. The most predominate subplot was the struggle between Cecil Gaines and his son.
Cecil’s son didn’t respect what his father did because he felt it was “serving” the white man and he went away to college and became heavily involved in the fight for integration – even joining the Black Panthers Party. But when he realized that the mission of the Black Panthers was more about inflicting violence than in gaining equal rights, he left the group and directed his efforts in more peaceful ways.
Though there was this chasm between father and son, as so often is the case in real life, Cecil and his son learned from each other. It was Cecil who stood up and was vocal about the injustice of the “white” White House servants being paid more than the black servants and that was finally rectified because of Cecil Gaines insistence that wages for equal work be equal. And Cecil’s son seemed to realize that “serving” a greater good was admirable in life. Cecil tried to teach his family that you should be proud to serve without losing your identity.
After Cecil Gaines had retired as White House butler, he met his son at a D.C. protest against South Africa’s apartheid. Cecil had come to realize that his son was a hero and had been part of a fight for the soul of America.
For those who are quick to react with the mantra, “it’s not that way anymore and I am not to blame for the past,” I ask you to think about how much you learned about life in America from your father? How much did you learn from your grandfather? If you learned from them, then your father and grandfather learned a lot about America from their fathers and grandfathers. In the history of this country, you don’t have to go that far back to find a time when fundamental racism was an accepted part of life. Baby Boomers can remember a time when the treatment of blacks was totally unacceptable and that was not that long ago.
It may seem like segregation and violence against black Americas is only part of our distant past, but the movie, “The Butler” reminds us that it is understandable that those times have touched even current generations.
“The Butler” will continue a conversation about race in America as other movies have done in the past. The Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case is just a recent reminder of how close to the surface racial tension is in America. The biggest obstacle in the way of better race relations is our collective failure to have a truly honest conversation about race relations. We have yet to have that conversation and until we do – expect little to change.
I am a part of the campaign, along with many other vets, to boycott this movie because it employs the American traitor, Jane Fonda, alias Hanoi Jane!
Don't care to see anything by Oprah.
OH woe is me!!!
I just LOVE artistic endeavors that promote RACIAL HARMONY!!!
NOLA in the house!
Did you see "New Orleans, LA" in the Windy Hill Pictures animated logo at the beginning of the movie?
It's 2013! Jane Fonda is an ACTRESS. Vietnam was how many years ago?!? Also, I saw the movie. It was sold out all day at Elmwood. The movie was good, I expected it to be great. But, they tried to do too much. The movie, "42" about Jackie Robinson was GREAT! That movie makes you FEEL in ways "The Butler" didn't.
It's really exciting to see Louisiana at the epicenter of the movie industry. And, quality movies. Bravo!
Forrest & Cuba!
Forrest Whitaker and Cuba Gooding Jr. were extraordinary. Not at one moment did you NOT believe they were those characters. Oprah did a good job, but they overindulged her character, as well as others.