I saw the movie The Butler the other day and would recommend it to anyone who wants to get a small sense of what it meant to be a black man during the civil rights movement era. Because the movie is a fictionalized account of a real White House butler who worked for eight presidents, there are times during the performance where it is obvious that this is still Hollywood telling the story not the reality of the segregated South or the middle class life of a black family in Washington D.C.
Forest Whitaker is sensational as Cecil Gaines, who leaves the cotton fields of Mississippi after his father is murdered by a plantation owner and his mother becomes catatonic. Cecil makes his way to Washington and impresses a white administrator responsible for hiring the staff at the White House. But even in the White House he faces discrimination as there is little room for black promotion or equal pay. Whitaker perfectly blends the feelings of a man who knows the realities of living black in a white world with an inner anger as he faces racial barriers and white condescension.
Oprah Winfrey plays his wife who is not happy with the loneliness of staying at home while Cecil is away and saddened because one of her sons has become a Black Panther. She too is torn because the reasonably good life of being a middle class black in Washington clashes with the sadness of knowing that there is a whole new world out there as her son fights against injustice. Many film critics feel that Oprah has an Academy Award nailed, but I didn’t see it, especially when Whitaker turned in a dynamic performance.
Throughout The Butler viewers are treated to front line actors – Robin Williams, Liev Schrieber, John Cusack, Jane Fonda and others playing Presidents and first ladies. But the heavily made up actors are not as important to the movie as the backdrop of the White House as the black help shine shoes, clean silverware and cater to the wishes and whims of the First Family.
The Butler has no pyrotechnics, robots, mass killings and steamy bed scenes, but what it has is a glimpse of history and a lesson in racial discrimination. Cecil Gaines lives in the movie to see Barack Obama become president, a fitting tribute to a man who survived through the worse to times as a black man in America.