Racial segregation, the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s and the Freedom Riders – you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a tale you’ve heard before. This time however, it’s told through the eyes of a Cecil Gaines, a black butler who served eight United States presidents. The script is based on the life of Eugene Allen, who had a front row seat watching history unfold from inside the White House.
Lee Daniel’s The Butler makes for a fresh take on the history of racism in America, as Cecil Gaines, played by Oscar winning Forest Whitaker, navigates his way from a cotton farm to Washington. Told largely in chronological order, the film recounts how Cecil and his family are affected by racism in post-war USA and the bravery of the Freedom Riders in breaking down racial barriers.
Drama is created by its director, Daniels, and his superb cast with tense scenes of conflict between Cecil and his eldest son, Louis. While dad is a peace-keeping, gentle man who feels blessed with his lot after getting opportunities only dreamt about by black men before him, his son is formidable and set on fighting for the rights of black people at all cost. But it is during quieter scenes that this film gets really good. Watching Whitaker’s dignity when he quietly leaves a room after being refused a pay rise or sitting, head bowed, in front of a coffin are what you will really take from this film.
A surprisingly excellent performance from Oprah Winfrey (who’s been on hiatus from acting roles for more than a decade) sees her play a bored housewife. Sometimes bold and outspoken, sometimes drunk, and sometimes sleeping with the neighbour, she is first and foremost a mother and a wife. In fact, without her this film would be little more than a history lesson. Winfrey makes this family’s love more real, relatable and the story so emotional it will leave a lump in your throat.
Something else Winfrey adds to this film is a welcome wave of humour. Her depiction of a bored housewife in a black neighbourhood makes for some surprisingly lighter moments amidst the serious message. Because, make no mistake, there is a serious message here. In fact, you might have heard the billionaire TV hostess profess recently that The Butler is “an important film, but an entertaining film”. Couldn’t have put it better myself. But rather than the cliché of condemning the Ku Klux Klan or focusing solely on hatred, The Butler chooses to shine a light on the strength of those who fought for equal rights. Quite apt, then, that the film opens with a quote from Martin Luther King who said: “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that”.
Yes, you probably know the history. And yes, there were more films about black and white segregation on my Google search than I had time to read and yes, this one will probably make way for many more. But few of those could shine this butler’s shoes.
See it at The Capitol until Thursday November 28.