A Butler Named Oscar
A Review of Lee Daniels’s “The Butler”
By Brian H. Settles
In these modern times cluttered with I-pads, I-Phones, X-Boxes, too many movies embolden with explosions, machine gun fire, ubiquitous dying and gratuitous sex, how refreshing it is for a Hollywood production to come along with its essence heaped with an amazing story buttressed by great acting. Such was the weekend experience viewing director Lee Daniel’s “The Butler.” In this moving and provocative cinematic endeavor, Daniels immortalizes the life of White House butler, Cecil Gaines, a Black man who rose from share cropping family roots as a boy to become head White House butler who served six U.S. Presidents over a half century.
Supported by an all-star cast, “The Butler” is an amazing cinematic experience for the story line alone. As is the case in so many human lives, Cecil Gaines’ road to a life of White House employment was generated by tragic childhood events that molded his character. In an apparent sympathy move by the plantation owner, after Gaines’ witnesses his father’s gunshot murder by the molester of his mother, portrayed by Mariah Carey, who becomes an emotional cripple incapable of raising young Cecil. The latter is brought into the big house to become, as emphasized in the movie, “a house nigga,” learning to practice the intricacies of properly serving wealthy white folks. The skills learned in serving others paved the way for his future leading to waiter position at a posh New York hotel before his highly honed experience waiting on the most powerful of society eventually garnered an invitation to interview for employment at the White House. But this is only the tip of the story.
As a baby boomer, who lived through the turbulence and suffering of the civil rights struggle, I was mesmerized by the crawl down memory lane magnificently directed by director Daniels, as the audience witnessed the longitudinal juxtaposition of Cecil Gaines insulated White House routine with the bloody struggle by African Americans for voting rights, integrated eating facilities and societal equality occurring on the streets across America. Gaines’ role is brilliantly acted by a seasoned Forest Whitaker and an equally stellar performance by Oprah Winfrey who plays his wife. The slideshow of contrasting scenes bouncing back and forth between the bloody chaos of the Freedom Rides in the South, rioting in the streets after Dr. King’s assassination and his son dying in the Vietnam War are in stark contrast to Cecil Gaines distracting himself from the madness of society by obsessively polishing the gold inlaid White House silverware.Throughout the film, the private life of this self-made, uneducated father of two sons and a husband, serving as a White House butler for the Presidents, is interwoven with the extraordinary subservience to the most powerful men in American government, giving film goers a sampling the private verbal interactions with presidents from Eisenhower to President Bush II, concurrent to the generational battle going on between old school Gaines and his new wave sons being nourished on the Black consciousness of the late twentieth century. For me this was the essence of the film’s profoundness: the conflict between family generations who have not experienced the same life circumstances of their parents’ struggle with race in society and the anxious hopefulness of loving parents who only want to raise successful offspring who are not crippled with excuses for not working hard in school to prepare for a better life that awaits them than the one available to their parents. I heard some moviegoers comment “they wished the film had offered more insight into the actual inside functioning of the White House staff.” I guess there just was not space to cover it all without risking tedium. The opening and closing scenes depict the highlights of Cecil Gaines’ life as a White House butler: finally, after retirement, being invited back to the White House to meet President Barack Obama, the first Black President of the United States.
This Butler is named Oscar. The superstar cast of actors made this move Bravisimo. With Winfrey and Whitaker, you couldn’t go wrong accompanied by strong work by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz who ceased being cool long enough to turn in a plausible support performance. Although not touted as a docudrama, “The Butler” is a valuable piece of American cinema that depicts not only how far Cecil Gaines climbed in his life, but how far America has come in its life. For those who love an American story, go see this movie; it’s part of what makes Black folks proud and America great.Brian Settles is a retired airline pilot, Vietnam combat veteran, poet and author of No Reason for Dying: A Reluctant Combat Pilot’s Confession of Hypocrisy, Infidelity and War. Twitter@BrianHSettles and Facebook