Several weeks ago, I saw comedian W. Kamau Bell, host of the FX show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell and he did an entire set on black “homework” movies. He said every few years there’s a black movie that everybody is supposed to see because a bunch of influential black folks are in the movie or political and cultural leaders say it’s important that we support the film. Some black homework movies are actually good, like Fruitvale Station or 42, where you’re entertained and you actually learn something. Sometimes they’re like Red Tails where you realize that just because it’s an historic movie about black people, doesn’t mean the film is actually any good. Fortunately this week Lee Daniels’ The Butler comes out, a movie that is not only worthwhile black homework, but objectively is one of the best movies out of Hollywood in years.
Let me preface by saying I would never have gone to see The Butler based on the trailers for the film. Usually, when Hollywood markets a ‘black film' the trailers are geared towards attracting white audiences since the assumption is that black people will pay to see anything with Oprah in it. The trailers for The Butler make it look like another black ‘struggle’ film about some downtrodden black family that manages to survive by keeping their heads down and accepting racism by being apolitical and staying true to their values. Essentially a big screen version of “Good Times”.
Fortunately The Butler is much more than Momma’s crying and wayward sons. The Butler manages to do something that most 'black homework' movies fail to do, which is actually telling the story of black people. Most black movies are really just the story of how white people’s lives are affected by the black people they know. The Last King of Scotland was supposed to be about Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, but the movie focused on a young white doctor and his liberal guilt and jungle fever. As much as I liked 42, the movie spent as much time focused on the white managers, teammates and press covering Jackie Robinson, as it did on the baseball icon himself. The Butler focuses squarely on the family of Cecil Gaines, from the good times and the bad, painting a picture of middle class black life in Washington D.C. something that is rarely if ever seen on film.
Gaines' (who is played by Forest Whitaker) life story is based on a Washington Post interview with Eugene Allen, a black man that served as a butler to eight presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan over the course of 34 years. While liberties were taken with Allen’s life, the historic interactions he has with presidents in the film are amazing, humorous and validating. The war planning, treaties and policy decision that he was witness to make this movie a kind of black Forrest Gump, where a common man with a sincere heart finds himself in the middle of dozens of history altering moments just by the nature of showing up to work every day for 34 years.
The movie doesn’t cheat the audience, all racists don’t get their comeuppance, everyone doesn’t live happily ever after and some victories in the film are small and only shared by a precious few. However the movie never wallows in struggle-porn either, extolling the values of survival over living during the American apartheid. This film shows the totality of African American life, happy families, house parties in the 70’s and moments that are laugh out loud funny.
The main reason the story of Cecil Gaines is so moving is because every single actor in the film is amazingly spot on. Within five minutes you forget you’re watching Oprah as she transforms into Cecil Gaines' loving and often troubled wife. David Olewayo, one of my favorite actors from the BBC spy show "MI-5" chews up every scene as Gaines' son, and delivers his own personal story arc that is inspiring and motivating as opposed to stereotypical narrative of the prodigal son. There are so many stars and guest appearances in this film that you can clearly tell that everyone involved knew that cinematic history was being made.
You shouldn’t just go out and see The Butler this weekend because Oprah is in it, or because a lot of smart and important black people say it’s “good” for us to see the film. You should see it, because the movie is well acted, painful, exciting, and historic and sometimes laugh out loud funny. See it because movies like this don’t get made often enough, and this is one homework assignment that you’ll be glad you took the time to finish.