Lee Daniels is perhaps one of the best black directors we have in America, but his films are extremely difficult to watch. Once you watch them, you are glad that you did. Having said that much, “The Butler” is in some ways an African-American take on the chronological narrative so masterfully exploited in Forrest Gump, turned inside out to tell an entirely different story; that of a young black man who left the cotton fields to become one of the most influential and prolific butler’s the White House has ever seen.
Unlike Forrest Gump, the story of Cecil Gaines is loosely based on a real life butler who worked in the White House for 34 years. One wonders if the real life story of Eugene Allen, the butler this film is based on, is as interesting though. The writer, Danny Strong, takes us all the way from the fields of Macon, Georgia past the inauguration of Barrack Obama. Every single moment in the evolution, execution, deconstruction, and destruction, of the Civil Rights movement is explored. Even the fight against apartheid in South Africa is thrown in for good measure.
If that wasn’t enough an all star cast listing both white and black actors and actresses too numerous to list give some of their best performances. Oprah Winfrey steals every single scene she is in. Terrance Howard gives her a run for her money. Forest Whitaker delivers his usual nuanced, yet genius study in character. Even John Fonda, Robin Williams, and John Cusack get in on the act.
At the end of the day it all comes together; Cecil Gaines finally reconciles with his son, Louis, who finally stops protesting and becomes a member of Congress where he can actually help work to change the laws that are oppressing blacks, and Cecil actually becomes more militant. Both father and son were working for towards the same goals, in their own unique way, and while Louis did not respect his father and his father’s idols, and chose the militant path he began to appreciate the path his father took. The film is an excellent study of the parallel between the articulate, bourgeois, educated black man and the militant, outspoken, often misunderstood, miseducated black man, both of which are often at odds with each other.
The film does more to promote consciousness than it promotes it will in theatrical previews, and takes you by surprise, the same way Lee Daniels other films, such as Precious, always manage to do. I can see why people would hate this movie, as they have other Lee Daniels’ films, as they are divisive and are not for everyone. The film is both provocative, depressing, incendiary and controversial, there are moments you feel all of these conflicting emotions at the same time. Having said all of this I don’t think it is an important film, or a necessary film, any more than films of a similar nature, like “The Help”, have been regarded by critics as such. But it is a film that anyone that likes a good story and anyone that is interested in learning about dark periods of American history will enjoy.