Marcia Rowe, Gleaner Writer
Lee Daniels' The Butler is a compelling period drama. It traverses the life journey of an African-American butler named Cecil Gaines, whose exposure and experiences illustrate repulsion, resignation, grief and finally amazement as he travels from the harshness of cotton plantation life to a ritualistic orderly life as a butler in the White House.
The creatively written and well directed film is nicely executed with fine acting by Forest Whitaker (Cecil), Oprah Winfrey (Gloria, Cecil's wife), David Oyelowo (Louis, Gaines eldest son) and Cuba Gooding Jr (Gaines' co-worker).
The story begins in 1926 when young Cecil witnesses the killing of his father by a son of their Caucasian owner because Gaines senior asked him to desist from raping his wife. Subsequently, after a stint in the big house as a house slave, as well as living with a mentally deranged mother, Cecil finds the condition unbearable and decides to leave, but his decision leads to more hardship before finding a job as a waiter at a hotel in Washington DC, and sometime later, asked to work at the White House where he served five Presidents - Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan.
But the Danny Strong-written script, seen on Sunday at the Palace Cineplex, Sovereign Centre, is more than just about servitude, it is about paradoxes. This was evident in Cecil's son, Louis, who spent his college life getting involved in various civil-rights movements, including being a member of the notorious Black Panther, while he, Cecil, is the obedient, muted butler. Charles (Elijah Kelly), Cecil's younger son, sums up Cecil's dilemma in addressing his brother who is against him going to fight in Vietnam: "I fight for my country and you fight against your country." Cecil, too, had his fights of a different nature.
However, the most powerful paradoxical action was the alternating Louis and his fellow activists sitting in a white only area in a restaurant. While insults and abuses rain on Louis, simultaneously in Washington, his father along with his butler colleagues set the dining table at the White House with a meticulous militancy.
The actors were all fantastic in their roles. Winfrey was stellar in depicting the varied degree of emotions required for Gloria, who shows little interest in her husband's employment. Instead, she spends her days drunk. On the other hand, Whitaker captured the chameleon nature of Cecil, and as such, gave marvellous portrayals of the unresponsive Cecil at work and the expressive father and husband. But the best transformation came from British-born Oyelowo, who sacrificed his native accent to create a Louis who was defiant, focused and determined.
In general, the film is well presented and worth seeing. Not only does the story parallel significant civil-rights flash points, but it also concludes with Cecil returning to the White House at the invitation of the first African-American president, Obama, and ultimately puts Martin Luther King Jr's I Have a Dream speech into some context. Go see what it is.