“The Butler,” directed by Lee Daniels of “Precious,” was loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, characterized as Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a butler who served for eight presidencies, starting with Dwight Eisenhower and ending with Ronald Reagan.
During this era, he has seen the United States change before his eyes, living through revolutions, assassinations, and scandals, all while serving the men who were deciding factors of these events.
Gaines has a stable, happy home life with his wife (Oprah Winfrey) and two sons, Charlie and Louis. Louis (David Oyelowo) grows up questioning the role of black people in society, which causes problems for the family once he decides to participate in rebellions, such as sit-ins and protests and joins the Black Panther movement.
When you walk into this movie, you have to have a basic knowledge of American history from the mid to late 1900’s to understand what’s happening. The movie zips through them as if the audience already knows about events such as Martin Luther King’s assassination and Richard Nixon’s resignation.
U.S. issues of the period are covered in ways that have become so constant in movies, they are cliche. Yes, the Vietnam War was bad. Yes, defining America’s role in the Apartheid was difficult. However, did the movie create enough emotional depth to make the audience care about it again? That would be questionable.
How close is Gaines’ story to Allen’s? I cannot say, but some of the more tragic elements in the movie make you wonder if what you saw was real or added for dramatic effect. There’s nothing new about adding drama to historical based films, but for a movie about something as serious and relevant as race relations, does it hurt or help to include it?
Watching the presidents make their appearances was like trying to guess what famous actor would show up next. They were all played by distractingly famous people who looked nothing like the men they portrayed, but captured their essence, at least as the director saw it.
Starting with Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower and ending with Alan Rickman, A.K.A. Severus Snape from Harry Potter, as Ronald Reagan. The Butler tends to cover old ground, and feels like your basic civil rights-centric movie.
Some of the white people are portrayed as overly racist caricatures. Stock footage of civil rights protests is used. In other words, it’s been done before.
However, the movie itself could mean a lot for the movie industry and for America’s attitudes towards race. Even though all this has been done before, it still hasn’t been done in a long time.
Let’s put this movie in context with the time we live in today. With more movies being tailored to appeal to an international audience, it is becoming harder for movies like this to be produced. What do I mean by this?
Movies featuring minorities, especially ones where individuals with darker skin play prominent roles, tend to be a harder sell overseas.
That could be the explanation for the lack of movies in recent years featuring a predominantly black cast.
Only recently has there been resurgence in films chronicling black history. A movie like The Butler shows that some producers are willing to take the risk in order to either capture whatever market they have left, or to simply tell a story that needs to be told.