By Madeline Marcelia Garvin
On Aug. 16, Lee Daniels’s The Butler, opened in Fort Wayne. The film is very powerful and features an all star cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams, Jane Fonda, Mariah Carey, Cuba Gooding, Jr., John Cusack and Terrence Howard to name a few. True, there were some stereotypical moments: the singing, the dancing, the partying and the playing of Spades. But, on a whole, the film was right on, depicting life as it was for those living in the South in the 1920’s and having to pick cotton for a living in addition to tolerating the abuses of the white run cotton fields, and the subservience that had to be displayed by older African-Americans during the frustrating fifties and the turbulent sixties and seventies as a means of survival.
Aside from Forest Whitaker being identified as “The Butler,” loosely representing Eugene Allen, who was the actual butler during these years of havoc and chaos, he could have been just as well referred to as “The Man,” for this character was right on! He ruled his roost, and he portrayed his part extremely well; from a young boy cast in a servile role as a youth after witnessing his mother’s rape by the cotton plantation overseer and his father’s death in the cotton field when he addressed the overseer who raped his wife, the tragic mulatto character Hattie Pearl played by Mariah Carey. Because of the aforementioned atrocities, the young Cecil Gaines, out of supposed sympathy, was taken in to the homestead residence of Annabeth Westfall played by Vanessa Redgrave, right after she had finished ordering other field hands to dig a hole and put the young Cecil’s daddy in it.
It was Westfall who began Cecil’s tutelage as a house servant. Yet, Cecil knew before he became a grown man, he would have to leave the Macon, Georgia residence to survive. His mother Hattie Pearl became deranged after her rape, and there was nothing In Macon for a young black man if he did not wish to be found dangling from a poplar tree. Cecil, of course, migrated to North Carolina, where he found work after breaking in an upscale hotel to pilfer food. However, it was at an early age that Cecil learned from Annabeth Westfall to be in a room serving without being noticed; while at the hotel, he learned to perform his duties well anticipating what patrons might desire. Because of his prowess and alertness at the hotel, he was summoned by a White House staff member who was impressed with his work ethic to become one of the President’s butlers, an exceptional job for a black man with no education during that era, outside of working at the U.S. Post Office, which is the actual job held by Terrence Howard’s character, who was also a numbers runner and a wannabe gigolo.
Though the film is one of historical fiction regarding the travails of Butler Cecil Gaines who serves under seven U.S. Presidents, it is also a film that focuses on the life of a black family during the Jim Crow era up through and beyond the Civil Rights era, with the dawning of President Obama’s administration. Without a formal education, Cecil Gaines was able to provide for his stay at home wife Gloria, played by Oprah Winfrey and their sons, Louis and Charlie.
Louis, the elder son, a modernized Prodigal Son, was in constant conflict with his father, because he was not one to be obsequious. Whereas, Charlie, the younger son was one who provided some comic relief with his somewhat “off the wall commentary,” especially as Gloria applauds Academy Award Winner, Sydney Poitier, and young Charlie alludes to the Poitier film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” when his older brother who has now connected with the militant Panther movement after engaging in submissive lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides, where he escapes with minimal physical scars, brings home a black leathered Afro coifed girlfriend, whom he subsequently leaves when she never admits to loving him.
My being only 11, living in Fort Wayne and watching the televised treatment of African Americans during the Civil Rights era when John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were Presidents, this film brought back memories. Although the music of the 60’s was turning me on, my moment of gravitas, was when Cecil and Gloria were ready to go out and celebrate Cecil’s birthday in their ’70s jumpsuits, and the door bell rang, disrupting a jubilant moment with soldiers bringing word of young brother Charlie’s death in Vietnam. Because I have friends and acquaintances whose names are emblazoned on the Vietnam War Memorial in D.C., tears swelled in my eyes and flowed down my face. But, aside from this tear jerking moment, the film, like I said, “was right on,” especially because of the historical civil rights scenes that were interspersed throughout and the fantastic performances of Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda and all of the butlers: Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Forest Whitaker.
Would I see it again? Yes, I would!
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 28 print edition.