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Lee Daniels' 'The Butler' Revisits US Civil Rights History

  • Penelope Poulou

Lee Daniels' The Butler carries the signature of acclaimed director Lee Daniels, whose fim Precious won an Oscar. Now, he tells the story of the Civil Rights movement through the eyes of a White House butler as he served eight U.S. presidents.

In Lee Daniels' The Butler, Cecil Gaines is the unassuming servant who epitomizes race relations in 1950s America. Forrest Whitaker offers a layered interpetation of Cecil.

"At that time, to have a position where you're working in the White House was a big deal economically speaking, socially speaking. But then there are also those who look at people in the service industry as uncle Toms, or people who are servants,
Whitaker said. "You can serve without being servile, and I think there is a very big difference between the two things."

Cecil doesn’t fight for social change but he unwittingly affects it by serving eight presidents.

But Cecil is not as sure-footed at home as he is at the White House. His wife, Gloria, resents his long hours and turns to alcohol and other temptations. His eldest son, Louis, a civil rights activist, looks down at his father.

Oprah Winfrey offers an Oscar-worthy performance as Gloria.

"I think of all of the men and women who served either as butlers or chefs, cooks, maids, janitors, and I think that the 'aha' is the grace and nobility that it took to do that, to hold your head up every day, to build a family, and build a life that supported you and your community," she said. "I just have a greater sense of pride for that man, those men and that time."

Martin Luther King, played by Nelson Ellis, tells Louis that a butler or a maid, although perceived as subservient, is in many ways subversive without knowing it. Cecil Gaines was certainly that. His character is based on Eugene Allen, the real White House butler, who witnessed major events while serving as the White House butler for 34 years.

But the film is ultimately about America, says filmmaker Lee Daniels.

"It's a civil rights story, but it is a father and son story," he said. "And the father and son story transcends race."

The film has a healing effect. And, while it serves as a reminder of racial struggle and injustice, it also celebrates Americans' ability to overcome.
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