The Butler

Posted On December ,

The Butler

Released on: November 2013

Genre: Historical/ Bio Epic Drama

Directed by: Lee Daniels

Story by: Wil Haygood

Produced by: Lee Daniels, Buddy Patrick, Cassian Elwes, Pamela Oas Williams, Laura Ziskin

Starcast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Elijah Kelley, David Banner, Mariah Carey, Jane Fonda 

In 2009, an elderly Cecil Gaines recounts his life story, while waiting in the White House. Gaines was raised on a cotton plantation in 1926 Macon, Georgia, by his sharecropping parents. One day, the farm's owner, Thomas Westfall, rapes Cecil's mother, Hattie Pearl. Cecil's father confronts Westfall, and is shot dead. Cecil is taken in by Annabeth Westfall, the estate's caretaker, and trains Cecil as a house servant.

In his teens, he leaves the plantation and his mother, who has been mute since the incident. One night, Cecil breaks into a hotel pastry shop and is, unexpectedly, hired. He learns advanced skills from the master servant, Maynard, who, after several years, recommends Cecil for a position in a Washington D.C. hotel. While working at the D.C. hotel, Cecil meets and marries Gloria, and the couple has two children: Louis and Charlie. In 1957, Cecil is hired by the White House during Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration.

The Gaines family celebrates Cecil's new occupation with their closest friends and neighbors, Howard and Gina. Louis, the elder son, becomes a first generation university student at Fisk University in Tennessee, although Cecil feels that the South is too volatile; he wanted Louis to enroll at Howard University instead. Louis joins a student program led by Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) activist James Lawson, which leads to a nonviolent sit-in at a segregated diner, where he is arrested. Furious, Cecil confronts Louis for disobeying him. Gloria, suffering from her husband's long working hours, descends into alcoholism.

In 1961, after John F. Kennedy's election, Louis and a dozen others are attacked by the Ku Klux Klan while traveling on a bus in Alabama. Louis is shown participating in the 1963 Birmingham Children's Crusade, where dogs and water cannons were used to stop the marchers, one of the movement's actions which inspired Kennedy to deliver a national address proposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Several months after the speech, Kennedy is assassinated. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, enacts the transformative legislation into law. As a goodwill gesture, Jackie Kennedy gives Cecil one of the former president's neckties before she leaves the White House.

Louis is later shown participating in the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Movement, which inspired President Johnson to demand that Congress enact a Voting Rights Act.

In the late 1960s, after civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, Louis visits and tells his family that he has joined the radical organization called the Black Panthers. Upset at his son's actions, Cecil orders Louis and his girlfriend, Carol, to leave his house. Cecil becomes aware of Richard Nixon's plans to suppress the movement.

The Gaineses' other son, Charlie, confides to Louis that he plans to join the Army in the war in Vietnam, to which Louis announces that he won't attend Charlie's funeral if he is killed there. A few months later, the Gaines family holds a funeral for Charlie, whom Louis does not attend; his father is furious. However, when the Black Panthers begin to use violence in response to racial confrontations, Louis leaves the organization and returns to college, earning his master's degree in political science and eventually running for a seat in Congress.

Meanwhile, Cecil's professional reputation has grown to the point that in the 1980s, he and his wife are invited by Ronald and Nancy Reagan as guests at a state dinner. Cecil announces his resignation to the President, but not before gaining Reagan's support in his years-long effort to have the black White House staff receive the same rate of salary and career opportunities as their white counterparts.

Gloria, wanting Cecil to mend his estranged relationship with Louis, reveals to him that Louis told her that he loved and respected them both. Realizing his son's actions are heroic rather than antagonistic, Cecil joins Louis in a protest against South African apartheid.

The film then advances to Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, where an elderly Gloria dies shortly before Obama is elected as the nation's first African-American president, a milestone which leaves Cecil and Louis in awe. The film ends with Cecil preparing to meet the inaugurated president in the White House.

To mark the 2008 Obama election, the Washington Post wrote about Eugene Allen, a black butler who had spent 34 years serving at the White House. Such a meeting of the generations provided such a perfect symbol of a changing America, it’s no surprise it inspired this fictionalised version. Yet somehow this broadly positive central idea works against the more complex themes underpinning ‘Precious’ director Lee Daniels’s potted tale.

We grasp the big idea from the off as elderly Forest Whitaker waits in the White House lobby for you-know-who to arrive. So when a flashback returns us to the unforgiving 1920s Deep South, the future pattern of the movie, playing Whitaker’s symbolic black experience against the historical milestones of successive presidencies (represented by high-profile cameos from Robin Williams, John Cusack, Alan Rickman and others), already seems set in stone.

As such, ‘The Butler’ proves a decent, significant, but slightly stodgy affair. Its dignified restraint stifles its anger. The devil is in the detail though, since Whitaker’s admirably controlled performance shows a man so worn down by presenting a docile front for his employers that he’s unable to grasp the worth of his college-educated son’s civil rights radicalism. There’s even appreciation for the fortitude of the housewife caught between the two men (Oprah Winfrey, alternately sassy and very affecting), typifying the film’s generosity of spirit towards the spectrum of black America.

To celebrate the entry of Cecil in Whitehouse as a butler, Gaines family hosts a dinner for their close friends where Gloria prepares Potato Salad with Dill. Here is the recipe for the lovely aromatic salad.

 

Potato Salad with Dill

Ingredients

600 gms                                                Red Potatoes, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

1/4 cup                                                 Mayonnaise

2 tbsp                                                    Cider Vinegar

2 sprigs                                                 Chopped Fresh Dill

To taste                                                Salt and Pepper

1/2                                                         Cucumber, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped

4 sprigs                                                 Green Onions, sliced

Method

1. Place the potatoes into a large pot and cover with salted water.

2. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until tender, about 12 minutes.

3. Drain and allow to steam dry while you prepare the dressing.

4. Whisk together the mayonnaise, apple cider vinegar, dill, salt, and pepper.

5. Stir in the cucumber and green onions.

6. Add the warm potatoes to the dressing and toss gently to coat with the dressing.

7. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving.