An article that appeared in the Washington Post just before Barack Obama’s inauguration as President of the United States, about a butler who had served over 30 years in the White House, inspired screenwriter Danny Strong to write a historical epic viewed from that perspective. The screenplay that resulted was fi lmed as Lee Daniels’ The Butler and released in 2013. It’s available on DVD at the Whitehorse Public Library.
Directed by Lee Daniels, The Butler follows the life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), born to parents (David Banner and Mariah Carey) who work in the fields of a cotton plantation in Georgia. After a traumatic event, Cecil is taken into the house by the owner, Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave) and trained to serve in the house. Once he comes of age, he heads north, where he encounters difficulty finding work until a chance encounter with a pastry chef, Maynard (Clarence Williams III), sets him on a career path that culminates in a position as a butler at the White House.
The impressive White House appointment offers stability and a high quality of life for Cecil’s family — wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and two sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley) — that’s far from the poverty and fear Cecil knew. His ability to maintain an impassive posture is an essential asset in Cecil’s position, but Louis is increasingly frustrated by it, as the civil rights movement gains momentum.
Inspiring a rare display of agitation from Cecil, Louis chooses to go to university in Tennessee. Soon he’s taking part in sit-ins, marches, demonstrations, and voter registration drives in the battle for desegregation of the South — risking not only his future at university, but his life.
Louis’s escalating activism runs parallel to Cecil’s successful career at the White House, as they come in contact with just about every influential figure of late- 20th century American politics, including Martin Luther King and most of the presidents between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.
These iconic characters appear briefly in cameos by well-known actors. John Cusack, in particular, seems to be having the time of his life playing Richard Nixon in some of his more tawdry moments. Robin Williams plays an exasperated Dwight D. Eisenhower, prodded into action to uphold federal law, and John Kennedy (James Marsden) is caught in the transformative moments between evasion and support for the protestors.
Personal, cultural, and political spheres intersect in The Butler in a way not often seen in popular fi lms — most vividly seen in the relationship between Cecil and Louis. In a brilliant scene with the whole family, reunited for a short time just as Louis and his girlfriend are moving toward more radical action, civility over political differences is edgily maintained, but a putdown of Sidney Poitier proves to be the last straw for Cecil.
The Butler is so engaging to watch, thanks to the skills of all involved, it’s easy to forget that you’re being schooled in some harsh realities. But it’s ultimately an optimistic fi lm, given a victorious conclusion with the election of Barack Obama.