“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (2013) is a Hollywood film about a Black butler at the White House who served American presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan. It stars Forest Whitacker. Lee Daniels directs yet another cringetastic film.
- Forest Whitaker: Cecil Gaines, a White House butler
- Oprah Winfrey: his wife
- David Oyelowo: older son
- YaYa Da Costa: older son’s girlfriend
- Elijah Kelley: younger son
- Mariah Carey: his mother
- Lenny Kravitz: fellow butler
- Cuba Gooding, Jr: fellow butler
- Terrence Howard: neighbour and friend
- Vanessa Redgrave: head of the plantation where he was born
- Robin Williams: President Eisenhower
- John Cusack: President Nixon
- Jane Fonda: Nancy Reagan
Oprah was the most believable.
Best part: seeing YaYa Da Costa, especially in her glorious Afro.
Our Story: Gaines and his older son are, amazingly, present at many of the turning points of civil rights history, he at the White House, his son on the front lines. Gaines’s “quiet voice” helps Presidents Kennedy and Johnson see Blacks as human, thus leading to the passage of important civil rights laws.
Gaines and his son fall out over the civil rights movement. Gaines thinks that if Blacks work hard and fly right, Whites will do right by them. He himself has gone from poverty to middle-class comfort and stability.
Meanwhile, Gaines works such long hours that Oprah Winfrey turns to drink and to the attentions of Terrence Howard.
The film ends with Gaines about to visit Barack Obama, the first Black president.
The film was “inspired” by the true story of Gene Allen. That means they read his story in the paper and got the idea for the film. They added:
- the cotton fields of Georgia,
- the rape of his mother,
- the murder of his father,
- the older son (he is completely made up),
- the younger son dying in the Vietnam War (he lived).
The racism and history in the film are cartoonish. For example, in the film the Klan attacks the Freedom Riders at Anniston, Alabama in the middle of the night with hoods on and crosses burning. In real life, they did it in broad daylight, after church, dressed in their Sunday best.
The White screenwriter put these fictional words into Martin Luther King, Jr’s mouth:
“Young brother, the black domestic defies racial stereotype by being hardworking and trustworthy. He slowly tears down racial hatred with his example of strong work ethic and dignified character. Now, while we perceive the butler, or the maid, to be subservient, in many ways they are subversive, without even knowing it.”
Hollywood has a long history of “subversive” films showing Blacks as servants, from “Gone With the Wind” (1939) to “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989) to “The Help” (2011). Apparently we were overdue for a new one.
Gaines, ever the House Negro, opposed his older son fighting for equal rights because he might be killed, yet does not oppose his younger son’s decision to fight in Vietnam, where he – is killed. The double standard seems lost on him and the film.