I knew that seeing the movie “The Butler” was going to be a challenge for me, but I decided to see it anyway because I wanted to write about it for 2 Dope Sistahs. As my husband and I waited to go into the theater, a woman with tears in her eyes came up to us. “You gotta see ‘The Butler’! You just gotta see ‘The Butler’!” she implored. Then she asked, “Are you going to see ‘The Butler’?” I rolled my eyes, sighed, and let out an audible “Oh, Lord.” My husband, on the other hand, was less irritated and told her yes. She assured us that we would love the movie then moved on to spread the word to others in the lobby. I thought about leaving right then and there, but we had already paid. I was hoping for the best.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” was “inspired by the true story” of Eugene Allen, who worked in the White House for 34 years, eventually retiring as a maître d’ in 1986. I was relieved to see that the movie did not purport to be the “true” life story of Allen although much of the publicity surrounding the film seemed to hinge on the connection with the “real” butler.
Forest Whitaker is “The Butler,” Cecil Gaines; Oprah Winfrey is his wife Gloria; and David Oyelowo is their son Louis. The film tells the story of the parallel, yet connected lives of father and son. After his father’s death, Cecil Gaines begins his “career” as a domestic worker in the plantation house where his family sharecropped. He takes great pride in his work. After landing the job at the White House, Cecil has close and seemingly intimate encounters with the presidents. He is present at pivotal moments in American history, and the presidents seek his input, especially on matters of civil rights and race.
While Cecil doesn’t seem to have much interest in civil rights, Louis is eager to be involved. He wants to attend an event where Mamie Till, whose son Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, is speaking, but his father forbids it. Louis decides to attend Fisk University in Nashville rather than Howard University in the nation’s capital in order to be close to and involved in the civil rights movement. Louis has little time for school because he is busy taking part in EVERY major civil rights protest of the 1960s. In one particularly heavy-handed example, Louis is in Memphis with Dr. Martin Luther King when he is assassinated. In his room at the Lorraine Motel, Dr. King informs Louis of the importance of domestic servants in African-American history.
Cecil and Louis are engaged in a classic generational conflict. The father doesn’t understand the son, and the son doesn’t understand the father. Not to worry, though. It all works out in the end.
“The Butler” featured great performances by Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, although I was puzzled by her character’s alcoholism and extra-marital affair. I also enjoyed the performances of Cuba Gooding, Jr., Lenny Kravitz, and Elijah Kelley as Charlie, the Gaines’ younger son. These performances, however, do not make up for a simplistic story that fails to capture the complexity of the lives it portrays. But in case you’re wondering, my husband absolutely LOVED it.