Movie Review: The Butler

Sydney Brown, News Editor

With all of the Valentine’s Day hype February brings, it is important that our nation’s Black History Month is not overshadowed.  African American history encompasses some of the darkest parts of American history, as well as some of the finest moments of courage and integrity.  Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a historical drama that chronicles the life of Cecil Gaines, an African American man, who, despite towering adversity, becomes the head butler at the White House.   From 1926-2008, Cecil’s story shows our nation during a time of stifling injustice and some of its greatest changes. This film features a veteran cast, including Forest Whitaker (Cecil Gaines), Oprah Winfrey (Gloria Gaines), and David Oyelowo (Charles Gaines).  Despite your typical genre preference, this is an important film to watch.

The story begins in the 1920s, depicting Cecil’s childhood living on a cotton plantation in Georgia.  As a sharecropper on the plantation, Cecil learns at a young age of the oppression and racism he is expected to endure as an African American.  As he becomes an adult, Cecil realizes he must leave the plantation and goes on to gain a job at the White House as a butler.  Cecil remains at the White House during the terms of eight presidents.  Gloria, Cecil’s wife, struggles with his frequent absences while working.  Meanwhile, his oldest son, Louis, attends college in the South and becomes involved in the Civil Rights Movement.  Cecil greatly objects, fearing for his son’s safety.  As tensions rise and violence erupts in the South, the Gaines family lives in constant fear for their son’s well being, and, as time progresses, Cecil begins to question his place in the White House and in the nation.

Standout performances are executed by both Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.  Many even believe Oprah was robbed in not receiving an Academy Award nomination for her role.  She portrays her character’s ambiguity, flaws, and love of her family flawlessly.  Whitaker’s performance illustrates Cecil’s internal struggle between acting how white people wanted him to and standing up for himself.  Supporting roles surely did not fall short, either, though I will leave commentary at that to avoid spoiling any more of the film.

Another aspect of this film that makes it truly striking is its editing techniques. Scenes often alternate between Cecil working in the White House and his son fighting for his rights in the boiling south. Parallelism between the shots creates a striking juxtaposition between Cecil’s unwavering obedience and self-condemnation and Louis’s impassioned battle to change the way things are. The intensity of the two is burning, although through such different causes: Cecil looks to prove himself, and Louis looks to make sure he doesn’t have to. These swift visual comparisons capture the changing tide of the nation.

The Butler is an important movie to watch, not just to celebrate Black History month, but to also witness American history, the oppression Americans placed on one other, and the progression of a nation.