Published: Monday, September 2, 2013
Updated: Monday, September 2, 2013 18:09
Lee Daniels’ star-studded release “The Butler” lived up to high expectations during a summer slowdown for theatrical dramas. The movie chronicles the life of a White House black butler, Cecil Gaines, who starts his job under President Dwight Eisenhower during racial unrest and ends his work under President Ronald Reagan, when racial unrest is becoming more noticeable in South Africa.
Long before he becomes a butler, Gaines’ life begins violently, giving a disturbing start to the film. He watches his father get shot for trying to confront a white man who raped Gaines’ mother. One of the unfriendly plantation owners trains Gaines to work indoors, and he eventually leaves the farm his family works on (and the site of his father’s death) in pursuit of more of the same work.
When the White House hires Gaines, we get a glimpse into his own tumultuous family. Oprah Winfrey plays Gaines’ vivacious, energetic and struggling alcoholic wife.
But the story becomes strongest when Gaines’ oldest son Lewis enters into adulthood.
Gaines’ story begins to run parallel with that of his oldest son’s. Where Cecil Gaines hides from politics and opinions, Lewis Gaines embraces them, even joining the Freedom Riders after starting his higher education at Fiske University in Tennessee. We watch as one tries to get ahead in society by complying with its arbitrary norms, while the other also tries to get ahead, but fights these same norms.
Despite Lewis’ peaceful tactics, like those of many other protesters of his generation, police carry him off to jail.
Cecil makes his disapproval of Lewis’s protesting clear to his son, before eventually asking Lewis and his radical girlfriend to leave dinner at their house, culminating in a 15-year estrangement between the father and son, to the dismay of his grief-stricken wife.
After his youngest son is killed in Vietnam, Cecil resigns from his position under Reagan and joins Lewis as he protests Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment. Though he gets a late start to the civil rights movement, he becomes an unabashed supporter of black politicians.
Cecil supports Lewis as he is elected to Congress, and by the end of the movie we watch as Cecil cries as President Barack Obama is elected, giving a warm feeling to even the most conservative voters.
Though the movie features quick clips with Hollywood A-listers (Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, Mariah Carey as young Gaines’ silent mother), the clips seem as if they are attempting to distract viewers, who need not be distracted by this dynamic story of the main characters.