This is an incredible film from writer Danny Strong (who you may remember as one third of The Trio in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer) and director Lee Daniels (The Paperboy, Precious). It is a great story of a butler, a father, a son, and a movement.
The film is based on the true story of White House butler Eugene Allen, who is deceased now. Allen started his service in 1952 with the Truman administration and ended it in 1986 during the Reagan administration. His service as a butler in the White House parallels the Civil Rights movement, which is the basis of this film.
The Gaines family is a fictional family, with Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) as the butler. The film opens in a cotton field in the south. “It was hard work,” Cecil narrates as the film unfolds. Cecil is a small boy working alongside his father. These opening scenes are incredibly important, because they set the tone for the rest of the film.
While Cecil is working along side his father, Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer) enters the field and demands Cecil’s mother (Mariah Carey) to meet him in the shed. Cecil watches his father watch his wife leave the field to do as the white man says. Cecil and the other field workers try to continue their work, despite the cries and screams coming from the shed.
As Thomas leaves the shed and is struggling to buckle his overhaul’s back, Cecil’s father, though silent at first, speaks up. Thomas takes a gun out of his overhauls, points it at Cecil’s father, and pulls the trigger.
Young Cecil learns two lessons on this day that will shape the man he will become. The first is the value of silence and the second is better to be alive than to speak up. The memories of this day will haunt Cecil throughout the rest of the film. Even though he doesn’t speak of it hardly at all during the film, the way Forest Whitaker portrays Cecil you can tell he is remembering.
It is by understanding this opening scene in the cotton field that we get a fuller picture of who Cecil is as the Civil Rights movement starts. And who Cecil is as a father during these difficult times. Cecil’s life is shaped by this early tragedy in his life that he never speaks of, which makes it difficult for his eldest son, Lewis, to understand him.
Lewis is the prodigal son, leaving home to gain his own life experiences. Even in high school, Lewis showed signs of disagreeing with his father. Lewis would go to Tennessee for college and would join the Freedom Riders. To capture the sense of what this time was like, the film blends in news footage of young African-Americans being beaten and arrested for sitting at white only counters or for riding the freedom buses. Lewis would eventually join the Black Panthers.
Director Lee Daniels creates a visual treasure of sorts as he draws a parallel between Lewis’ involvement with the Freedom Riders and Black Panthers alongside his father’s serving in the White House. Lewis is the rebellious young adult whose actions are wrapped in the need for change. Cecil, on the other hand, is the speechless, unquestioning, servant. It is the parallel between keeping silent and speaking out.
In the meantime, Gloria Gaines, who is brillanitlly portrayed by Oprah Winfrey (dare I suggest an Academy Award nomination?), deals with her loneliness by turning to the bottle. Cecil’s silence was not only reserved for the White House. In fact, there is so much unspoken tension between the couple. It is a rare occasion to see him be affection with Gloria. We mostly see Gloria at home, but not in the traditional the wife-stays-at-home role. She is most often the hostess for other families. They gather in the Gaines home for parties and for dialogue. Even here, in this setting, Cecil seems to blend in with the wallpaper. He remains silent on the issues, even when it comes to Lewis’ involvement, other than that he thinks Lewis should not be involved.
Oprah Winfrey gives a commanding performance in this film. Gloria does not have any moving monologues, just a few seemingly generic lines. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Winfrey gives Danny Strong credit for writing those words. But, as Strong points out, Winfrey gives those lines life. That combined with her simple actions creates meaningful scenes.
Charlie, the younger brother, sees the world differently from his rebellious older brother and from his silent, servant father. He joins the armed forces and goes to Vietnam. “You fight against your country,” Charlie says to his brother, “I want to fight for my country.” Charlie represents yet another perspective to the Civil Rights era. Is there one this is more right than the others? Gloria, in a dramatic scene where Cecil throws Lewis out of the house, slaps her son and tells him that if it was not for the butler, he wouldn’t be where he is now. Gloria’s action implies that maybe more than one perspective is needed.
In writing about the about the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15), Fred Craddock observes that the parable should really be referred to as the parable of the forgiving father. It is this image that I see in Cecil Gaines. There are so many converting moments in the film, or as Oprah would say, “ah-ha moments.” One was when Cecil and Gloria were invited by Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda) to the State Dinner. “I got all confused after that,” Cecil recalls. As Cecil reflects on what it was like to be on the other side of the serving, he concludes:
Lewis was never a criminal. He was a hero fighting to save the soul of the country.
He resigns after a long career as a butler, and leaves the White House and joins Lewis. Lewis is curious as to why his father is there. “I came here to protest.” The next scene is Cecil and Lewis in a jail cell together. This jail cell scene, with father and son laughing and smiling, represents the forgiveness that resides between them.
A forgiveness that humanity as a whole has yet to reach.