Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Rating: How can we criticize anyone in the world with our brutal history of racial prejudice in our own country?
Former Indiana Governor Daniels would not recommend Lee Daniels’ The Butler as it relives recent American history as it happened, not as many political sycophants want to remember. In a nutshell, it tells the life story of Cecil Gaines, a butler who served 8 American presidents. Beginning with President Eisenhower in 1957, it brings the racial tensions of this country into full focus.
Forrest Whitaker is perfect playing Mr. Gaines, a butler whose primary focus is to be seen and not heard. Oprah Winfrey excels beyond her personal reputation as his wife and the mother of his two young boys, a woman who finds comfort through alcohol and cigarettes as she confronts the many hours where her husband is away. She is splendid as a woman torn between her loving husband’s role as the functional equivalent of an old South’s “house ni_ _er” and her teenage son’s rebelliousness.
David Banner plays Mr. Gaines son as he reaches his college years, soon finding himself participating as a freedom rider in the South. As he drifts from a supporter of Martin Luther King to a member of the Black Panthers, he is repeatedly incarcerated to the dismay of his parents. The other son enlists in the service and is sent to Vietnam where tragedy awaits.
Director Daniels succeeds in combining the interactions taking place in the White House with that occurring in the streets of America. In many parts of the country black people are treated like second-class citizens, forced to eat in designated restaurant areas as well as use only identifiable restrooms. Young people marching in the name of equality are brutally beaten and sometimes killed, and chaos looms with the death of Mr. King in April of 1968.
But while you see our country’s anguish you also get an invitation into the White House. Robin Williams is surprisingly effective as President Eisenhower, a Chief Executive forced to confront the ugliness taking place in Selma and Montgomery.
James Marsden is spot on as a young JFK, and Liev Schreiber nails LBJ right down to his tendency to address his aides with no shame or embarrassment while seated on a toilet. Finally, John Cusack perfectly reincarnates Richard Nixon, a man who wallowed in an alcohol infused haze of paranoia to the bitter end.
The Butler is a reminder that our country should focus on our own weaknesses before trying to impose our will on other nations. As I left the theater with my Saudi exchange student, Thamer, I noted how his own country, Saudi Arabia, was our ally despite the fact that it was not a democracy. Noting what the young people in his country were struggling to attain, he responded that I, as a criminal defense lawyer, should be happy to live in the United States and not his country. When I asked why, he smiled saying, “You’d die of boredom, as we have no crime.”;
Shouldn’t we pay more attention to Cairo, Illinois rather than Cairo, Egypt?