Review: “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”

Now might be a good time to come clean about something; I never voted for Barack Obama. No, I’m not a “birther” or conservative of any kind — in 2008, I checked off Ralph Nader, and in 2012 I did the same for Jill Stein — if anything, I’m too liberal. But this doesn’t mean that I wasn’t swept off my feet by the campaign promise of “Change” (considering the prior 8 years) or the inspirational speeches of “Hope”. I voted for the people I felt could actually deliver on those ideals, no matter how little a chance they had of winning.

Please don’t take the above to mean that I wasn’t extremely happy on that first inauguration day. My skepticism was pushed to the back of my mind for that.

With the release of Lee Daniels’ ‘The Butler’, I find myself reflecting not only on my feelings towards our current President, but those of many others, and where it all will fits. The film, inspired by a true story, follows the contrasting lives and philosophies of two men; a father and his son. Cecil Gaines (the father) works as a White House butler, serving Presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan. He is present for many history changing decisions, but never injects himself into the proceedings. As a butler, he has been trained to blend into a room “as if noone were in it”. This, he believes, is the best way for him to be the change he wants.

Louis Gaines (the son), becomes an activist, taking part in many major civil rights events (sit ins, freedom riders, black panther party, etc). It’s dangerous, but it’s the best way he can be the change he wants as well. Their different approaches to the injustices of the time causes tension in their relationship, to the point of not speaking to one another. This drama and contrast of character actions makes it one of the best films of 2013.

Cecil claims he is not political in any way, but that’s not to say he’s apathetic. By being stoic and refined, he hopes to change the minds and mend the hearts of those in power. There is assertiveness and determination beneath that perfect posture and well executed etiquette. In one scene, a distraught President Nixon asks Cecil to sit with him. He tells him that he won’t resign, to which Cecil simply asks if he needs anything else. However, the manner in which he asked his boss said it all; he clearly doesn’t like this guy, and thinks he should go away. Maybe, in Nixon’s half awake state, Cecil hit him with some subliminal message?

I was worried that Lee Daniels’ ‘The Butler’ was going to be a tearjerker of the highest order, giving us a sentimentality overdose. But everything looks and feels so natural, despite us knowing what’s about to happen from a historical standpoint. The assassinations of JFK and MLK Jr. in particular hit you like a brick, more so than in any other movie dealing with these events. It’s really emotional watching Cecil put on the tie Jackie Kennedy gave him after her husband’s’ death.

The film ends with the election of President Obama, and Cecil being asked to meet with him. The last words of the movie are “Yes We Can”. In any other story, this would’ve been an eye rolling moment. A cheapshot to illicit a smile. But I see it as a call to arms almost. The film presents two different efforts to create change, and in the end, some level of change has happened. A father and son come together (spoiler alert) and a country elects an African American to be President. But that doesn’t mean we should stop pushing buttons. Nobody is perfect, and sometimes a nice reminder of that is necessary. Whether it’s by being as perfect as possible (stoic) or by showing the end result of your faults (activism), minds and hearts can change. It is possible.

4.5 / 5

Originally published in PROPAGANDA New Orleans.

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