Review by Grace D. Gipson
"It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, --an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."
As I left the theater, I would be immediately reminded of the above statement from W.E.B. DuBois and his concept of double-consciousness along with the "veil." To live in a world where you must decide how you must live your life according to others is quite a powerful thing. Interestingly enough The Butler, to a degree, explores that by presenting a story that evokes many of these complex feelings and experiences.
Based on the real-life account of butler (eventual Maitre-d'hotel) Eugene Allen, we are given the opportunity to travel through the years with the fictional Cecil Gaines (and his 34-year tenure in the White House) as he was able to eyewitness numerous high-profile events of the 20th century. Historical events beginning with the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, the Freedom riders, Nashville sit-ins, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy's assassination, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the assassination's of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, the Vietnam War, Nixon's resignation, and Apartheid in South Africa. This all leads up to the 2008 Barack Obama presidential campaign and election, furnishing a climatic backdrop to the life of this "pantry man" turned butler. Knowing this, The Butler is a unique historical drama film that everyone should see and personally determine for themselves what and how much of an impact it has on them. Many will leave the theater in tears, many may leave encouraged, discouraged and/or angry, and others may leave with the intent to do better. Whatever the case may be, the film serves its purpose.
The Butler is more than just about a man who is privy to many things, but it also tells a story of how this position affected him positively and in some ways unfavorably. In this position, Gaines demonstrates how one sometimes has to sacrifice their own self, family, personal feelings, and beliefs in order to enjoy the "good life" for the greater good. But then one asks the question, at what cost? Oftentimes during the film there were many eyebrow raising and awkward moments that although minor still stood out for me. Everything from parent relationships, finding love, and fighting for the cause are topics discussed in the film. And it's these little details that can make a film good or great! I always find it interesting the amount of attention certain movies get, such as The Butler. In a way, it is good to see more films discussing these pivotal individuals and the events connected to them, but there has to be more. Audiences have become quite familiar with the brutality, horror, victimization, and torture of African Americans to the point of no return. So one has to ask what about the resistant/radical fighters, the risk-takers, and the stories that are buried even deeper and also not found in the typical textbook.
But I digress. So as I watched the film, I definitely must applaud writer Danny Strong and director Lee Daniels for bringing this story to the screen. The role of the butler is actually very important and I'm sure hits very close to home for many people, including myself, as I had several family members who took on this role as a job. To be in a position such as the butler and/or maid, this not only demanded much of one's time, but also having to wear the veil that we so often try to step in front of (versus stand behind). Thus, The Butler is a film that has "two-faces"; one of how to cope in a patriarchal, white world and the other of being competent but primarily invisible. It's all about the choices that you make and the consequences that follow. As mentioned earlier, for those who watch the film, one will find that every person has their own personal impact. This film was full of emotional intentions to make you critically think, cry, laugh, fight back and appreciate.
In addition to a compelling and inciting plot, The Butler also presents a star-studded cast of actors and actresses. However, with this all-star cast there were some hits and some misses. Let me first say I appreciate how the film introduces us to Cecil's parents, so that we can have a foundation as to why Cecil becomes the man that he becomes throughout the film. However, my one complaint is who is set to play certain roles. Kudos to David Banner for this role as Earl Gaines (Cecil's father). Although on screen briefly, Earl Gaines was definitely poignant. On the flip side, there is the character of Hattie Pearl (played by Mariah Carey) who also has a short appearance, but a powerful one. I appreciate Daniels including this character in the film, however it was just his choice of who played the role. Not sure of Carey's significance, but nonetheless the character was needed. In a sense, it provides a backdrop to the future parent-child relationship that we would see in the rest of the film. Then you have leading man Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker) who does a formidable job in this portrayal. It's almost like he plays a "quiet storm". Whitaker truly embodies the understated role of Cecil Gaines and his struggle to survive in a world that uses him only when needed and necessary. With each film, Whitaker just gets stronger and better as an actor. I would be surprised if the Oscar buzz does not hit his radar. Conclusively, Whitaker gave a brilliant and provocative performance that demanded your attention. And at the same time showcasing the sensitivity and humanity of the character. Now the character that really got my attention was Oprah Winfrey's portrayal of Gloria Gaines. This was definitely one of the top highlights of the film for me. Oprah presented the many layers of this character inside and out as she truly embodied the role.You feel her pain, you empathize with her, and you see how she humanizes the role of wife and mother. In essence, Gloria plays this "bridge builder" and voice of reason, which is a very important element to the film. She comes very close to almost stealing the movie with her touching performance. Cecil and Gloria's two sons in the film (Louis and Charlie Gaines) also played an important role as they were great examples of the dual sides of a father-son relationship. David Oyelowo should be once again commended as he plays the eldest and more radical son Louis. His role in particular teaches us how pride and stubbornness can sometimes be the demise of many relationships.
In addition, there are definitely some more folks who should be complimented for their role in the film. Yaya Alafia (DaCosta) does a great job as Carol Hammie, a student activist and Louis Gaines' girlfriend. Her growth as an activist is unique in that one significant event can affect you for the rest of your life. Alafia is definitely proving herself worthy, and definitely someone to not sleep on. Also Terrence Howard (who plays Howard) gives the viewer the element of what it means to be a "two-faced and no good". Other supporting characters such as Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz, who played Gaines friends and fellow butler colleagues, also provided another lens as to the camaraderie of domestic workers (in and outside the work place), as well as what it was like to work in the White House. It was also good to see Pariah's Pernell Walker (Lorraine) make several appearances throughout the film. It is good to know work is still coming in for these up and coming actresses/actors. There is additionally an interesting line-up of the presidents and first ladies, including Robin Williams (as Dwight Eisenhower), James Marsden (John F. Kennedy), Liev Schieber (as Lyndon Johnson), John Cusack (as Richard Nixon), Alan Rickman (as Ronald Reagan) and Jane Fonda (as Nancy Reagan). All in all, this was definitely a strong cast that proved worthy of watching them on the big screen.
I will say this going into this film, I was on the fence especially after seeing the various movie posters and watching the trailer. I was not sure how this was going to turn out considering the HUGE FAIL that was The Help. But The Butler actually turned out better than I expected. As a whole, the acting was good, but there were some areas that just needed that extra push. As a current doctoral student in African American Studies, I noticed certain historical flaws/inaccuracies (regarding the role of the butler, some of the presidents, and various events), but nothing so damaging that it does not warrant viewing the film. At moments it felt rushed to cram a lot of history in one sitting. I appreciate the effort, it just needed to be teased out a little more, more focused on some things and less on others. Although not an epic film, it does present another story that might otherwise be swept under the rug, glossed over, and forgotten completely.
Overall, The Butler served its purpose as an inspiring, entertaining flick for the summer. Many lessons can be taken from the film such as sacrifice, dedication, struggle, and family. I will say it again, it's a film that you take at face value. Each person has their own personal impact, some with the extra bells and whistles, others not as many. When it is all said and done, this is only one account of someone's life. History tell us to trust and believe that there are many more.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10
*You can find more of my reviews on Black Savant Cinema and via Twitter @GBreezy20