The Butler tells the story of a White House butler who served eight American presidents over three decades. The film traces the dramatic changes that swept American society during this time, from the civil rights movement to Vietnam and beyond, and how those changes affected this man’s life and family. Forest Whitaker stars as the butler with Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, and many more.
The film centers on the life of Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker), who grew up on a plantation but spent most of his career in service at the White House. To his son Louis (David Oyelowo), Cecil is nothing more than a representative of “Uncle Tom” culture, spending his life in willing thrall to the white man.
Cecil manages to provide for his family and carve out a career; it is only late on in his life, when President Ronald Reagan offers him an opportunity to savor something that he has never previously experience, that he understands how little his masters have changed, ideologically speaking, since the days of racial segregation. This is the film’s “aha-moment” – from then on Gaines devotes himself to the cause of equal rights.
The Butler brings out the ambiguities of the African American experience; how Gaines’ life might be regarded as a form of “liberation,” despite working for a succession of white Presidents; and how the Civil Rights cause (as symbolized by the Black Panther movement of the Sixties and Seventies) might not have necessarily aided the African American experience.
The film contains a clutch of memorable performances: Oprah Winfrey is quite admirable as Gaines’ wife Gloria, supported by Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr., in supporting roles. Whitaker is quite simply brilliant in the title role; he ages gracefully while always sustaining his self-respect.
Director: Lee Daniels
Year of Release: 2013
Character to watch: Forrest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines.
Journal your answers to the following questions after you watch the movie.
- How does this particular character’s journey compare with yours?
- Did the character develop certain characteristics during the movie that you have or that you would like to have? If so, what are those characteristics?
- What obstacles did this character face? What was his or her biggest challenge?
- What would you have done differently if you had been in the same position as the character?
- Is this character the type of person you would be friends with? Why or why not?