The ButlerBy Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place
Almost exactly seven years ago in this space I praised Forest Whitaker for his brilliant performance as Ugandan dictator Edi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Turns out I was right on the money: Whitaker went on to win the Oscar for Best Actor at the 2007 Academy Awards.
Well, whether he wins a second such accolade remain to be seen. But no one can deny that Whitaker has done it again – this time in the role of Cecil Gaines, a fictional rendition of Eugene Allen, who worked in the White House during eight presidential terms, spanning Ike’s election in 1952 through Reagan’s first term and half of his second. A November 7, 2008 Washington Post article by Wil Haygood: “A Butler Well Served by This Election” – inspired the screenplay by Danny Strong.
Cecil’s story is the perfect vehicle for a survey of the African American experience from the 1920s to the election of Barack Obama. The story opens in 1926 in a Georgia cotton field, where the ten-year-old Cecil sees the rape of his mother and the murder of his father, all in the space of one scorching summer afternoon. His “workers’ compensation” for these atrocities is to be taken into the plantation home as a “House N*****.”
Most of us, I suspect, would have been crushed by Cecil’s childhood trauma. Ever resilient, he learns not only his trade, but also how to read and write. Recognizing that eventually the master of the house will put a bullet through his head, just like his daddy’s, Cecil strikes out on his own. He finds employment at one hotel and then another, the second drawing him north to Washington. It's there that he comes to the attention of the incorrigible racist who is in charge of the White House domestic staff. This guy pays his black staffers 40 percent less than his white employees. But it is the White House, after all, and the salary, such as it is, enables Cecil and his wife (Oprah Winfrey) to lead a middle class existence.
Gaines is trained to ensure that “when I’m in the room, it feels empty.” This, of course, doesn’t prevent him from overhearing Ike, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter and “Ronnie” discussing race relations and civil rights policy. What he hears sometimes inspires and sometimes discourages him. Meanwhile, his two sons take divergent paths, neither of which pleases the butler. One becomes a Freedom Rider and then a Black Panther, while the other enlists and heads for Vietnam, as the Sixties take their terrible twists and turns.
The Panther progeny cannot appreciate his father’s achievement, until Martin Luther King explains to him that Black domestics are “subversives, even if they don’t know it.” Cecil doesn’t seem to know it either. But he’s crystal clear about wanting to lift his boys to the next level. The tension between such members of an emerging Black middle class and their radical descendents, who are advised by Malcolm X to reject peaceful gradualism, is a core theme of the film.
The brilliant Whitaker and an adequate Oprah Winfrey are joined by a star-studded (pardon the cliché; it fits) cast that includes Vanessa Redgrave, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard (who seems to be turning up everywhere this year), Cuba Gooding Jr., Robin Williams, and Alan Rickman.
Do I have any quibbles? Director Lee Daniels perhaps should have picked up the pace and pared down the 132-minute movie a bit. Perhaps he could have gone a little lighter on the melodrama. But, by and large, this is a powerful yarn on both the personal and historic levels – well worth the price of admission and likely to win an Oscar or two, whether for Whitaker and/or other significant contributors to this project.
Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking.
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Jim Castagnera is the author of 19 books. His latest is Counter Terrorism Issues: Case Studies in the Courtroom