By Joan Ellis
And we thought we’d done it all. Half a million men died in the war that resulted in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation; the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in schools; Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock; Johnson pushed the civil rights bill through Congress. Our various elected governments had cleared the legal hurdles that allowed suppression of blacks by whites, hadn’t they? Not quite.
In their wondrous new movie, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, director Lee Daniels and writer Danny Strong weave this history through a family story that shows us the cruel residue that persisted after those earlier accomplishments. Think about the Freedom Riders. As we watch the filmed reenactments of the beatings, burnings, and hosings of those determined riders, we think, “It can’t have been that bad.” And repeatedly, Lee Daniels follows those scenes with actual newsreels that say: “You see, it was worse.”
As a boy, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) watches his mother dragged away for rape and his father murdered by the no-good heir to the plantation where his family works the cotton fields. Brought into the house and trained as an immaculately dressed server to the family by the resident matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave), he carries those skills north when he leaves, landing in Washington, D.C. His skills and fine references bring him eventually to the White House as a butler where he stays for 37 years serving presidents Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Nixon (John Cusack), Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Liev Shreiber), and Reagan (Alan Rickman).
Cecil has learned to be formal, correct, and invisible. Along with his peers (Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz), he is taught to “wear the mask that grins and lies.” They are performers. The camera follows Cecil home from his White House life to his family: wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), sons Louis (Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley). When Louis goes to Fisk University and trains for the demeaning and eventually triumphant business of being a Freedom Rider, his father orders him from the house.
Director Daniels cuts seamlessly among clips of Cecil’s White House duty, his richly textured family life, and the newsreels that confirm what we are seeing. By the time he is finished, we are flattened, our complacency punctured. The performances – some with a wink of the eye – are thoroughly engaging. Watch Jane Fonda and Minka Kelley with their marvelous suggestions of Nancy Reagan and Jackie Kennedy. Then, try if you can, taking your eyes off Forest Whitaker or Oprah Winfrey for one minute of their screen time. Forest Whitaker’s Cecil is dignified and contained, his body a prison for a lifetime of emotional pain. Oprah Winfrey, moonlighting from her day job, is unexpectedly astonishing as wife, mother, and reluctant wearer of masks.
Each of us will have our own takeaway. Mine is that our collective work as a black-and-white nation is nowhere nearly done when black fathers must still teach their sons that putting a hand in a pocket is to risk being stopped, frisked, or shot.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.