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Film / The Butler

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Lee Daniels' The Butler (previously known simply as The Butler) is a historical film directed by Lee Daniels, who also directed Precious. It stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines (based on the Real Life figure Eugene Allen), the head butler of the White House from 1952 to 1986, where he served under eight different Presidents, and bore witness to the changes in the political and racial landscape of the United States during his tenure.

The movie was released on August 16, 2013. The trailer can be seen here.

This movie provides examples of:

  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Gloria, who winds up having an affair with her neighbor Howard before deciding to end it. It's also around then that Cecil tries to make the effort to spend more time with his wife.
  • Artistic License – History: As the film is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, several artistic liberties were taken. For instance, Allen started his White House tenure in 1952 under Harry Truman after he directly applied for the position, whereas Gaines started in 1957 under Dwight Eisenhower after impressing a White House administrator at a hotel. Furthermore, Allen's son did not die in Vietnam, and he did not resign in protest of Reagan's apartheid policies either.
  • Asshole Victim: Howard, at least as far as Gloria is concerned.
  • Been There, Shaped History: Cecil Gaines ends up witnessing or even participating in most of the major events of the Civil Rights Movement: Eisenhower discussing sending the Army to enforce the desegregation of Little Rock High School; Robert F Kennedy discussing how to move forward with desegregation in general; Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act; the Freedom Riders (through Louis); the rise and militancy of the Black Panthers (also through Louis), and Nixon's fight against them; the international boycott and economic sanctions of apartheid South Africa; and finally, the election of Barack Obama.
  • "Back to Camera" Pose: In the poster, Cecil Gaines looks out from a White House window at kerfuffle outside. His back is to the viewer and his hands are primly tucked behind his back and in crisp white gloves, indicating his butler position. Symbolically, it shows that Cecil, as a black man, did not have a voice in American politics for much of his employment.
  • A Birthday, Not a Break: Cecil learns of Charlie's death while he and Gloria are celebrating his birthday!
  • Bittersweet Ending: Cecil loses both his wife and one of his sons and ultimately resigns from his job after realizing how thankless it is, but he also reconnects with his other son and lives to see the first black President take office.
  • The Cameo: A few historical ones, including Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Richard Nixon.
  • The Deep South: Where Cecil grew up and where other parts of the movie take place.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: After her (presumed) grandson rapes a field hand and shoots her husband dead out of spite, Annabeth Westfall's decision to make their young son a house servant is presented plausibly as an act of kind contrition. Also the common usage of the n-word, including by African American characters who don't know any better (which includes Cecil).
  • Face–Heel Turn: Carol goes from an idealistic freedom rider to, as Oprah puts it, "a low class bitch".
  • Faceless Goons: Some of the KKK thugs, though most of them actually avert this.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Cecil's sons take turns being the two roles.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Due to this being Historical Fiction the audience knows going in what will happen to everyone except the main characters.
  • Gray-and-Gray Morality: The central conflict between Cecil and Louis. On one hand, Louis is crusading for civil rights, but in reckless ways that endanger his safety, at which point the film tends to take Cecil's side. However, by the same token, Cecil's stubborn and set-in-his-ways (if not also well-meaning) personality ultimately hurts his entire family.
  • Happily Married: What Cecil and Gloria are for most of the movie. Gloria also pretty much lampshades this near the end of the movie.
  • Heel Realization: Louis has one after spending too much time with the Black Panthers. Ronald Reagan has one in regards to whether or not he's on the right side of the Civil Rights struggle in South Africa.
  • Heroes Love Dogs: A Running Gag with President Johnson is that he is almost never seen without his dogs.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: The movie suggests that Ronald Reagan opposed sanctions against Apartheid South Africa because he was indifferent to the plight of black South Africans and even goes so far as to imply that he was pro-Apartheid. While the real Reagan opposed such sanctions and even vetoed a bill imposing them (his veto was later overruled by Congress), he was known to be privately appalled with Apartheid and his opposition was for more pragmatic reasons. note 
  • I Have No Son!: An argument after Louis shows up for dinner for the first time in seven years leads to Cecil not speaking to him for about fifteen.
  • In Case You Forgot Who Wrote It: Averted in an odd way. The film was originally titled simply The Butler until Warner Bros. blocked The Weinstein Company at the MPAA title registration bureau based on the fact that they already released a film under that title... a short film, in 1916. The MPAA ended up allowing the film to keep the title as long as they put director Lee Daniels' name in front of it.
  • Invisible President: Mostly averted, but the presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are rather glanced over via a news montage, presumably because their tenures weren't as important to the Civil Rights Movement. Richard Nixon comes close, getting only a very brief cameo. After Cecil's resignation, the presidencies of the Bushes and Bill Clinton are skipped over to Obama's meeting with Cecil in 2008.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: President Johnson is portrayed as incredibly crass but also passes the Voting Rights Act.
  • Job Title: Butler is a job.
  • Kill the Cutie: Charlie is one of the nicest and most endearing characters in the movie, but is ultimately killed in Vietnam.
  • Killed Off for Real: Cecil's Father, Charlie, and Howard.
  • Light Is Not Good: The KKK, though having said that, not all of them wear the trademark white uniform here.
  • Mood Whiplash: Don't get too comfortable whenever jokes are making you laugh. Something tragic is coming right after.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • Ronald Reagan gets one when accepting Cecil's resignation along with listening to Cecil's complaints of the pay gap and being willing to force Cecil's boss to give the same privileges. His wife gets one earlier when she invites Cecil and Gloria to dine with them as guests rather than as a butler and his wife.
    • Richard Nixon when he's still Vice President visits Cecil and his coworkers working on down in the White House kitchens. Yeah, he's a little creepy about it, and asks them to vote for him, but it's not like anybody else comes down there to tell them all what a good job they're doing.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Suffered by Cecil's mother.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Cecil gives one to Louis during the dinner scene, mixed with Tranquil Fury.
  • Scary Black Man: The Black Panther Party are a whole group of these.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: When the soldiers come to tell Cecil and Gloria their son Charles has been KIA, their reaction is accompanied jarringly by disco music (they were watching Soul Train). Which only makes it that much worse.
  • The Stoic: Frequently Cecil, in contrast to his son Louis.
  • Token Romance: Louis and Carol. It doesn't last, and Louis even winds up doubting if Carol ever loved him at all.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Louis from Cecil's perspective. Also Charlie, who goes to Vietnam seemingly on a whim...and gets killed.
  • Tranquil Fury: Cecil to Louis at the fateful dinner scene, before becoming not so tranquil. Followed immediately by Gloria trying to deescalate the situation, only to go full on Tranquil Fury herself when Louis insults Cecil's profession and she orders her son out of the house.
  • Unfolding Plan Montage: The sit-in scene cuts between the preparation and the actual event (with a little butlering on the side).
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: How loosely? The only member of the butler's family whose name is not changed is Charles. Film!Charles goes to Vietnam and is KIA. Real!Charles went to Vietnam and watched a private showing of this film. More importantly, the rape of Cecil's mother and the murder of Cecil's father never actually happened and were solely added in for dramatic effect.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist:
    • The teacher who first gets Louis and Carol into the Freedom Riders, putting them through Training from Hell to prepare them for what they will face, and being completely unsympathetic to potential recruits who are afraid of being killed.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Cecil and Louis both suffer from this from a couple different people, including (and most prominently) each other.
  • Would Hit a Girl: The KKK and other racists show no compunctions about going after women and minors with nothing short of total sadism.
  • Your Father Is Better Than You Think He Is: Essentially, what Martin Luther King Jr. tells Louis is that his father, as a domestic servant, is contributing to the advancement of racial justice and equality in his own way.
  • You Killed My Father: Averted. While he doesn't face those responsible for the cruel loss of his parents, Cecil finds a semblance of closure by revisiting the plantation where he spent his childhood. Now derelict and reclaimed by nature, the plantation is a testament to the passage of time. As Cecil outlives the sharecropper family and their estate, he comes out on top by surviving into the present while they fall to decay and ruin.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: Louis may be trying to get equality for African Americans, but his father views him as being irredeemably stupid and irresponsible.