Archive for September 20th, 2013

The invisible man as prism: ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ helps convey the story of 20th century American civil rights

September 20, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Sept. 20, 2013

Near the very beginning of the cumbersomely titled Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the camera flies quickly over a vast field in such a fashion that budding cotton plants are, at least at first, indistinguishable from the sun-dappled waves of the ocean.

We are seeing a Macon, Ga., plantation in 1926, a place and time where young Cecil Gaines and his family and friends are little better than slaves. After Thomas Westfall — a white man and a land owner, or at least the son of one — rapes Gaines’ mother, Earl Gaines confronts Westfall verbally. Westfall pulls a gun and shoots the other man in the head as the horrified 8-year-old watches.

That event forever changes the world for Cecil. Matron Annabeth Westfall takes young Gaines under her wing with a mixture of kindness and cruelty; mere seconds after Earl has been shot to death, she curtly tells the child to stop crying and informs him that he’ll become a “house nigger” now.

Young Gaines takes to his new life as a serving boy. But at age 15, believing that Thomas Westfall was bound to take his own life, Gaines runs away and becomes the protégé of a butler at a hotel in North Carolina. A few scenes later, a middle-aged Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is working as a butler at a fancy Washington, D.C., hotel in the 1950s; a few scenes after that, the husband and father joins the domestic staff of the White House under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The Butler, as I shall refer to it, is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, who literally served every American president from Harry Truman through Ronald Reagan. Allen’s life, as originally chronicled by Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood, has been adapted for the screen by Danny Strong. The feature is directed by Lee Daniels, whose last two outings were The Paperboy (2012) and Precious (2009).

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