Easily one of the best movies this year and should be a shoo-in for nominations in next year’s Oscars is Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
The movie follows the life and times of Cecil Gaines, who began life as a son of a sharecropper (David Banner) and his abused wife (at the hands of plantation owners) played by Mariah Carey. After witnessing two brutal acts against his parents, he is brought into the owners’ home by the matriarch of the family to be taught how to be “a house nigger.” Cecil adapts to his assignment from childhood to his teenage years, when he leaves the harsh realities of the south and moves to Washington, DC, where he works at a hotel and is selected to a White House assignment.
Thus he begins to work under American Presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan. Each actor portraying the various presidents are spot on, especially Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) and Lyndon Johnson (Live Shreiber), who provided some of the biggest laughs in the theatre.
Forest Whitaker takes over the role of Cecil from early adulthood and is very solid throughout the movie – but in my eye, another actor should have played him in his early years. The wig was a distraction in his “20s and 30s” – but he sparkles in his old age as he not only combats in quiet confidence racism, but an alcoholic wife (played brilliantly by Oprah Winfrey), two quite different sons – Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley) – who have a conversation about this country that shows the tension in the African-American community in the 60s with a great gravitas. He has the line of the movie in the conclusion and when I left the theatre, people were repeating it as they left the theatre.
Cecil’s neighbors and co-workers are a delight, but I’m wondering why does Terrance Howard always have to play the philanderer? Cuba Gooding, Lenny Kravitz, and the other White House staffers, underpaid compared to their (unseen) white counterparts show how disciplined they could be publicly and switch mercilessly to real people in the kitchen.
The latter portions of the movie remind you of Forrest Gump as Cecil’s lifepaths directly dissect with major historical events – Korea, Vietnam, Kennedy Assassination, Nixon Impeachment, Little Rock Nine, Nashville Woolworth Sit-Ins, and even the Black Panthers. The brutality of the Freedom Riders of which Louis is a part, is worth the price of admissions for young people who have only heard of it and never seen images like this. It’s not disturbing for those of us who lived in or immediately after the period of the 60s, but it will make you think twice about race relations and wonder how come we are not farther along in 2013 than we should have been.
It also reminds us that even in the 50s and 60s that the Black Community was divided in its approach to civil rights. There were those who protested, those who fought, those who sued, those who stood in pulpits, those who organized boycotts, there were those who chose not to be involved, and there were those who went to the streets in violent protests while others took to the street in peaceful protest.
Oprah Winfrey plays Gloria Gaines like a finely tuned instrument. She displays a wide range of emotions from contented housewife to alcoholic to compassionate mother to combative defender of her husband. As she says, Cecil’s being a butler has brought financial sustainability to the family – even though he quietly fought for a raise, won at the hands of Ronald Reagan. Oprah even makes you remember that even in the bad times, humor and love often times keep a family relationship together when it doesn’t seem possible on paper.
There is no doubt that Oscar should consider Daniels, Danny Strong (for his screenplay), Whitaker, Winfrey, Oyelowo, Schreiber and Rickman for possible nods in respective categories. If this movie is not on the list for Best Picture then it goes to show that good filmmaking by black folk is still in the pullman car and not on the showcase floor.
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