A Look At The Roles For Black Actresses In Lee Daniels' 'The Butler'

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by Natasha Greeves
July 19, 2012 4:17 PM
11 Comments
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Eugene Allen

Much has been reported about Lee Daniels' upcoming film The Butler, here on Shadow and Act, but the recent casting announcement of Pernell Walker finally got me to print out the script and give it a read.  

One can expect an epic quality, as the film will cover Cecil Gaines (Eugene Allen in real life - photo above) from mid-teens till his 90’s, intercutting his experience with Major Moments and characters in American History.

At the heart this is a father son drama as we experience the difficulty of two generations trying to understand each other. The script, while based on the life of Eugene Allen, could aptly be called a work of historical fiction inspired by Mr. Allen.  

The script takes the major moments read about in the profile by the Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/11/06/AR2008110603948.html) and obituaries, but changes a lot.  

For example in the film, Cecil starts his work in the White House with Eisenhower, while the real life Eugune Allen started work at the white house during the Truman administration.  As noted earlier by Vanessa in her review of the script, he had one son, Charlie, and in the film he has two; Charlie and Louis.

I could go on citing differences, but I think you get the picture; this is a fictionalized version for entertainment of the real Eugene Allen’s life.

While Vanessa has already shared her thoughts on the script (read HERE), I wanted to take a closer look at a few things - one of them being that, other than the casting of Oprah Winfrey as the title character's wife, Pernell Walker is only the second casting announcement for a black woman in this film, to my knowledge.  

A quick perusal of the project's IMDB page (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1327773/fullcredits#cast) also reveals that Mariah Carey was part of the film's cast, but un-credited.

Several announcements have been made about white actresses in the film; Jane Fonda as Nancy Regan, Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy, Melissa Leo as Mamie Eisenhower, Vanessa Redgrave as Annabeth Westfall and an un-credited role for Nicole Kidman.  

There are only two major roles in this film for black actresses; Gloria Gaines, the wife of Cecil Gaines (the title character) and Carol Hammie, whom Cecil’s son Louis meets while at University.  

We first meet Gloria Gaines when she is 22 years old, and she ages to 90 throughout the progression of the film.  Given this information, they will obviously have to have double-cast the role. She is initially described as a sturdy brown-skinned maid.  

By the way, I am happy to report that this is not a dutiful wife role!

Gloria reads sassy but with vulnerabilities, and she has her own story arc which will need highly capable actresses to play her as a young woman, and later, much older.  Given that Oprah has already been announced for this role, it begs the question (please don’t shoot me) how young can Oprah play, and what actress can fill the gap from 22 until that point, whatever it is?

So there's still a part here to be filled that has yet to be announced. Unless the plan is for Oprah to play the role from 22 to 90.

The other major role for black actresses is the character Carol. When we first meet her, she is 19 years old, and is described as sexy yet masculine.

While not stated I would guess she ages to no more than 29 for the duration of the film.  It should also be noted that the masculine part of the description is of importance, due to a later scene in the script. She, like Louis, is eager for change, and is willing to fight for it.  

I couldn’t help equating the role of Carol with the real life Kathleen Cleaver and Angela Davis.  At one point in the script her hair is actually described as an Angel Davis Fro.  I do not think, based on the description, that Mariah Carey has been cast in this particular role.

Pernell Walker’s role of Lorraine is as one of the White House maids who Cecil meets on his first day.  The role is relatively minor but memorable; she has a couple of scenes and will likely be part of all the white house staff scenes.  

There are a few more roles like this throughout the script, which is actually filled with *minor* roles.  Many of them have been cast with big stars, but they amount to little more than cameos.

We have seen quite the list of black actors announced as being cast in the film in addition to Forest Whitaker: Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, Jesse Williams, David Oyelowo, Colman Domingo, and most recently Stephen Rider.  

Thus far we know that Forest Whitaker has been cast as Cecil Gaines, the title character,  David Oyelowo as his eldest son Louis, and Colman Domingo as one of the Butlers at the White House. So with that long list of actors, it leaves one wondering who’s who? 

Below, I have made a list of the speaking parts that are still awaiting casting announcements, based on the version of the script I read.  It should be noted that since the character of Cecil ages from 15-90, that another young actor will likely be needed for that part. The son’s roles may be double casts as well.

Here's the list of what's still unknown in terms of casting:

Earl-Cecil’s father

Abraham-Young Cecil’s friend

Maynard-Mentor to Cecil

Charlie-Cecil’s youngest son

Elroy-Charlie’s friend

Freddie-Maitr ‘d at the white house

Carter-Whitehouse Butler

Holloway-Whitehouse Butler

James Lawson-Young activist in Nashville trained students in Non-violent (historical civil rights figure still alive today)

James Farmer-Civil Rights activist and Leader of the Congress of Racial equality; Freedom Rider

Martin Luther King

Eldridge Huggins-Leader of the black panthers

Keith Alans-Black Conservative running for office

Barack Obama

It should be noted these are my descriptions based on the version of the script I read and not an as described in any actual casting notice.

 

 

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11 Comments

  • Joey | July 21, 2012 1:26 AMReply

    Yaya Dacosta is playing gloria..very weird they haven't announced it.. she isn't a "serious actress" by any means but you would think they would still announce it.

  • Nadine | July 27, 2012 1:58 PM

    Yaya has gotten opportunities, yes, but has clearly not blown some viewers away with her acting. Hopefully she has grown up. She illustrated some serious internal character issues when she first came on the scene. It was very disappointing.

  • Bamako | July 27, 2012 1:18 PM

    Yaya Dacosta is one of our more serious young actresses. Get out-ta here with that. She's worked with Sayles, Cholodenko, in indies. in studio stuff like TRON, and then will go do a black director piece like Ma George. This pricked my feathers. Get in the know before you spout off!

  • Jeannette Blackwell | July 20, 2012 4:19 PMReply

    As a working actress, I'm well aware of the limited "juicy" roles for women; particularly women of color and a certain age range. This project still seems like a work in progress. Scripts often change during the filming process and roles are added or deleted accordingly. Let's hope that more opportunities develop as this project moves forward. It could provide a wonderful chance to showcase or introduce a new talent to the public.

  • ALM | July 19, 2012 10:49 PMReply

    "When we first meet her, she is 19 years old, and is described as sexy yet masculine."

    Two thoughts on this quote:
    1. They need to take care in casting this role. Only a handful of women can do the sexy androgyny thing properly (i.e. Annie Lennox in "Sweet Dreams")

    2. Since when is an afro considered "masculine"?

  • ALM | July 20, 2012 9:35 AM

    @The Black Police: I hope you are being sarcastic. I am an African American woman with natural hair, and there is nothing masculine about me. I can say the same of millions of other African and African American women. What is your point of reference for your opinion?

  • the black police | July 20, 2012 1:17 AM

    Black features are masculine.

  • turner | July 19, 2012 5:53 PMReply

    Is the script good?

  • Natasha | July 19, 2012 7:57 PM

    Vanessa did a script critique . . . you can find a link within the piece.

    Because scripts change over time and even during the process of shooting I personally prefer to not critique a script.

  • AccidentalVisitor | July 19, 2012 5:40 PMReply

    ""Several announcements have been made about white actresses in the film..."" Several announcements have been made about the numerous white ACTORS too. There obviously will be a whole lot of white people making glorified cameoes. They will be playing almost all of the famous folks. No disrespect but if the intent of the writeup was to look at the roles for black actresses in this movie then that focus appeared to have been dropped halfway through. And for this particulat film why is it even important? One could have asked where were the black male characters in the movie "The Help" or in Daniels' earlier film, "Precious"? The answer would have probably been the authors/the screenwriters didn't feel their presence were necessary in larges doses to tell the story. That may be unsatisfactory but that is what it comes down to. The same may apply to whoever wrote the script for "The Butler". The writer may have felt more comfortable telling this from more of a male perspective. That being said it is not as if I don't understand Natasha's curiosity or, perhaps, frustration. A month ago I was wondering when another black actor was to be cast in "Twelve Years A Slave" (after all 'several announcements' had been made about white actors in that film). Now was I going to post a writeup about it for S&A? Umm...probably not. ;)

  • Natasha | July 19, 2012 8:42 PM

    Originally I thought the same thing . . . that the story just didn't include black women but after hearing the announcement of Pernell Walkers casting I was curious about her role and read the script . . . I found that script actually had two rather nice roles for black women . . . thought some S&A readers might want to know.

    I was also curious about all the male announcements without specifics on which characters. So I decided to let the readers know the characters that existed in the version of the script I read.

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