Sometimes, I follow an actor’s career and see a movie to see the actor……..act. This was my first reason a friend and I went to see LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER…..the actor, Forest Whitaker. And, as usual, he didn’t disappoint. Forest Whitaker’s Cecil Gaines, fashioned after the real-life of Eugene Allen, lived during slavery, overt racism, worked hard to achieve a tenure as a White House butler for 3 decades, served 8 presidents, and had a family with some real family issues.
SPOILER – By now, many people know the makings of this movie that received a wide range of reviews and opinions. Good, bad, and in-between. The movie begins with Cecil as a child witnessing his father, in the cotton fields, speaking up after his mother (Hattie, played by Mariah Carey) is raped by the farm’s owner. Standing next to his dad, Cecil sees his father shot and killed in a blink of the eye….for daring to speak up. Compounding tragedy is Cecil seeing his mother’s emotional and rapid mental deterioration after the rape, so basically he has lost both parents. Over time, he works to learn skills to survive, as a house server in the homes of the wealthy and white, and perfects his growing profession. By not ‘speaking up’, not voicing political opinions, by being non-obtrusive with his employers and their powerful friends, he’s ‘discovered’ and given the coveted job of Butler at The White House. Cecil makes the move with his wife, Oprah’s Gloria, and his sons, Louis and Charlie.
MORE SPOILER – Years pass with 8 Presidents, the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Vietnam, the Black Panthers……and Forest Whitaker’s Cecil is holding my hand and walking me through his personal experiences. Being a woman and latching onto the idea that no matter how much bad he experiences with the racism of the times, if his family life is just loving and good, his heart will hold more joy than pain. With that said, I cringed as Oprah’s Gloria began to drink too much, feeling isolated from Cecil and crosses the line into the duplicity of infidelity, however brief, with Terrence Howard’s Howard, a man masquerading as a friend of Cecil’s…..a man who favored his manly parts over morality and cavorted with Gloria on the side, along with his other married women. His was a character of moral decay, enjoying stealing from Cecil what was his……his wife’s fidelity and knowledge of her intimately. Soon enough, Gloria came to her senses and kicked Howard to the curb. As always though, betrayals ink themselves in the marriage fabric and later Cecil makes a statement to Gloria suggesting he knew of her betrayal. We did see an expression of shame on her face before the conversation changes. Another heart pain for Cecil. As an overview – Oprah’s performance has been considered stellar by critics and I agree. Gloria was an integral character for me in this movie, helping me bond with Cecil’s life story.
Their son Louis grows up to clash and clash big, over a large period of time, with Cecil. Louis doesn’t understand his dad not fighting racism during the Civil Rights Movement. But then again, Cecil is what life has helped make him. On the positive side, he is a hard worker superior in his abilities, with an impeccable sense of honor, is self-contained but not timid, loves his family, and treats his coworkers and friends with respect and warmth. But unfortunately Cecil has learned a necessary survival behavior of not speaking up, not voicing his opinions if negative and he learned that when he witnessed his father shot and killed for speaking up to the farm-owner/rapist. As a child, Cecil experienced the cruel murder of his dad and then his mom ‘losing her mind’ after being raped…..and that type of trauma is engrained in a person and his actions….a moment of losing everything you have.
We are, every one of us, our past, present, and perceived futures. There’s no getting around it.
LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER is an in-your-face movie of exploitation, a movie showing one group of people attempting to control another group by annihilating their self-esteem and personal power….controlling by debasing, and a man, the hero Cecil not only surviving, but inspiring others during his life. The movie is filled with a long list of powerful actors with minor parts and I’ve read some people think it adds to the movie (bit parts by well known actors) while others feel it subtracts from the story. I believe it adds to the moments, and to the entertainment.
For me, this movie is thought-provoking and relevant and creates a platform to mull over cause and effect in life, and importantly, how we treat others. Entertainment and a teaching tool….2 for one.
If you appreciate the unique talents of Forest Whitaker as I do, you may enjoy these way-past movies of his, PHENOMENON, 1996, and PANIC ROOM, 2002.
Barbara Jetton, 9/2013.