My disdain for “Black films” that boast White heroes hit its arch circa “The Help.” Though Viola Davis, wigless, in her corn rolls and sweaty dark brown skin, poignantly contributed the substance to the pages of Mississippi’s most scandalous literature at the time, she was given the opportunity by Skeeter–an ambitious blonde who rather read and write books than make babies. With similar names, one would expect Lee Daniel’s “The Butler” to mirror “The Help.” However, it is everything “The Help” wasn’t and so desperately wanted to be. “The Butler” feels more like “Forest Gump” than it does “The Help.”
Within the two and a half hours it takes Daniels’ to tell the story of Eugene Allen through Forest Whitaker’s vessel as Cecil Gaines, you will go through an array of emotions, there are moments that command you to chuckle, scenes that require tissue and other times when you feel hatred filling in your gut. Told over the course of eight presidencies, through the eyes of the White House domestic, “The Butler” is charming most of the time and unbearable at others.
Cecil was born into a life of servitude, his parents (Mariah Carey, David Banner) were sharecroppers. On the plantation, is where Cecil first witnesses the atrocities being African-American post slavery, pre-civil war brought forth. His father, gunned down in front of him for protecting his mother, left him with one daunting piece of advice, “It’s his world, we just live in it,” which may have been the precursor to Cecil’s obedient demeanor. Determined to be more than a corpse buried under the feet of cotton pickers, Cecil ventured into the world pursuant of a different lifestyle. He learned the way of the house negro, with which forks to eat the salad, serve from the left and most-importantly make the White man as comfortable as possible– a message that parallels today’s crimes against African-Americans.
Blacks aren’t being lynched per say, but young Black men like Trayvon Martin are killed because of their skin color, attire and being unintentionally intimidating– a characteristic perpetuated by society. With films like “Fruitvale Station” on the tip of prominent tongues like Denzel Washington, the Black story is being told in an unabashed way that Hollywood should fear because it makes Whites look worse than they did when George Zimmerman walked.
The ensemble cast: Cuba Gooding Jr, Lenny Kravtiz, Terrence Howard, Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker, Yaya DaCosta, David Oyelowo, Robin Williams, Jane Fonda and so many more, gave stellar performances in their respect roles.
It’s particularly uncomfortable watching Carol Hammie (Yaya DaCosta) be spit on for sitting in the White section of an establishment while her cohort is sprayed with ketchup and violently shoved by White men who see no wrong in attempting to uphold Jim Crow’s separate but equal law. More than a brazen history lesson, “The Butler” is an unconventional father and son story. Cecil passively fights the powers that be and while his son Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo) is an active freedom fighter whose reverence lies in figures who would rather be beaten than subscribe to the White man’s way. Their opposing viewpoints creates the films most dynamic relationship.
Cecil’s wife Gloria (Oprah) is the glue that kept their family together while Cecil tended to the needs of others. Oprah was desirable, inviting and funny. “The Butler” captivates you and holds you there because you’ve become so invested in the characters and chain of events led by tragic moments that rock you to the core. Of all the cast, Cecil Gaines was the most charming. A genuine warmth could be felt whenever he smiled, or extended his hand to shake another. Whitaker’s performance will earn him an Oscar nomination.
There won’t be another film like “The Butler” for some years. Daniel’s will be praised for his work the same he was for “Precious.”
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