Not since Joseph interpreted a dream of Pharaoh's shaqah has a butler been mythologized like the hero of Lee Daniels' The Butler. Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who worked for eight presidents from 1957 to 1986, takes his cue from the the true story of White House butler Eugene Allen. Yet this epic drama has its own master to serve, and both Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong pledge allegiance to educating viewers about history rather than to dramatizing one man's bio.
At a recent press conference, Daniels stressed that it's not so much "a movie" as "a movement." The subservient tradition that Cecil embodies can be summed up by what he's told on day one at Eisenhower's (Robin Williams) White House: "You see nothing. You hear nothing. You only serve." What better vehicle than a butler to escort you through the Civil Rights era, Vietnam and beyond -- and teach you to speak out for justice?
A scene from Cecil's boyhood goes some way toward explaining why he'd court safety and stability at any price. In 1926 he taunted his father (David Banner) to stand up to the white master (Alex Pettyfer) who raped his mother (Moriah Carey) by the field where they were picking cotton. His father was shot dead before Cecil's eyes.
But for that Dixieland deed, the black eight year old (Michael Rainey Jr.) would not have been brought into the plantation manse by the matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) to be schooled as a domestic and set on his path. Daniels aims squarely at the guts as he lays out lesson two: history loves irony, and it's the very intimacy of master-servant relations that can prod racial understanding and the delicate art of human transformation.
Fast-forward to a scene set in Memphis of 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. (Nelsan Ellis) observes that the role of the black butler has been instrumental in "defying racial stereotypes." King dignifies Cecil's principled devotion with his impromptu sermon, "In many ways (domestic servants) are subversive without even knowing it." The target of his wisdom is Cecil's teen son Louis (David Oyelowo), whose rebellion against his father's servility leads him to become a Black Panther and supplies the emotional core of the film.
Another source of flint comes from Cecil's spouse, Gloria. Oprah Winfrey plays her with raw attunement to the careerless wife's own ordeal of subjugation. As Winfrey told the assembled press, "I am the daughter of a maid. And my grandmother was a maid. And her mother was a maid. And her mother was a slave. So the domestic worker in the speech that Dr. King gives to my son in the movie -- I feel validated by their courage; I feel validated by the war that the butler and his entire generation fought in their own way." Winfrey also paid tribute to the "Freedom Riders and freedom fighters, who because of evolution and growth and change decided we're not going to do that anymore," concluding that "both wars were necessary for their time."
Recreating the anti-segregation campaigns that student activists mounted down South in the 60s gave Daniels and his cast some battle fright of their own. As the filmmaker recounted, "We were shooting that bus scene where... black men were hung from that bridge... And I yell, 'Action!' And I'm in the bus with these actors, these kids. And from nowhere come the Nazis and the KKK and the cursing and the spitting and the shaking of the bus. And I yell, 'Cut!' And they can't hear me. And they continue on. And David (Oyelowo) and Yaya (DaCosta, who plays Louis's girlfriend) and we were looking at each other like, 'What the hell?' For that millisecond I understood what it was like to be them -- not just the black kids that were there, but the white kids that were there who were willing to risk their lives for freedom. They were heroes."
From Monsters Ball and The Woodsman to Shadowboxer and Precious, little in Daniels' filmmography prepares you for The Butler besides his invitation to ponder unsavory situations from the perspective of individuals who are caught up in them.
Liev Schreiber, who plays Lyndon B. Johnson, mused, "That's how we really come to understand history personally: (through) our own relationship to political change and how these things evolve in our lives." He continued, "Being so close to the center of the political universe in the White House, this man had this unique perspective on what should be a very political universe, and what we find out is that it's actually a very intimate and a personal one."