I was fortunate once again (see my write-up on Steve McQueen 12 Years A Slave script HERE) to have the opportunity to read the script for the Lee Daniels’ highly-anticipated period drama The Butler (a September 2011 draft).
We have been updating you on the film’s developments frequently in the past months, mostly of its impressive cast. Some of those posts have, not surprisingly, stirred up heated debate in the comments section.
It’s directed by a black man; and, obviously, there are a lot of expectations for Daniels follow-up to the 2008 success of Precious. Not only that, but we know the film is based on the life of Eugene Allen, an African American who worked as a butler in the White House for over 34 years, serving 8 presidents from 1952 to 1986. Many immediately drew comparisons to last year’s The Help, and understandably so, given the information revealed about the film until very recently.
The cast has been shaping up to be quite impressive to say the least: Forest Whitaker as the butler, Oprah Winfrey as his wife Gloria, David Oyelowo as their son Louis, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Liam Neeson as Lyndon B. Johnson, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan and Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy. The likes of Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard have also joined, although we don’t know which roles they’ll get to play yet.
I won’t spoil the film and spill too many details, but hopefully I will clarify a few things, and, hopefully, you will be as excited as I am to see the finished film.
The film is actually inspired, not based, by a 2008 Washington Post article by Wil Haygood titled A Butler Well Served by This Election (read it HERE); that article, as mentioned in our post back in April, pretty much summarizes Mr. Allen's many years of service in the White House, leading up to President Obama's election.
But even if you’ve read that Washington Post article, don’t expect a faithful adaptation from the few details revealed by the late Mr. Allen. Allen had one child with his wife; The Butler’s Gaines has two children: Louis and Charles. The names have been changed; our Butler is Cecil Gaines, and Daniels takes some major creative liberties to develop the narrative, which is compelling, riveting and not what you’d expect.
It’s definitely a tearjerker; it certainly had that effect on me. However, it wasn’t until after I’d read a little over half of it that I started to succumb to its full impact. Don’t get me wrong, the opening scene, in which 8-year old Cecil is picking cotton in Georgia alongside his mother and father, is abominably shocking; it depicts the unimaginable horrors of racial injustice southern Blacks faced, well after the emancipation of slavery, working the fields in the south in the early 20th century.
But, soon after, an obviously traumatized young Cecil, begins training at a young age as a “house nigger.” And, most likely, as a survival strategy –mental, emotional, and physical- he became an exceptional servant, one who took pride in his work.
Recall our post from April, in which Whitaker revealed details about Oyelowo’s role of his character’s son, saying Oyelowo will play “an activist who is repeatedly arrested. My character is a conformist, but in his own way, he influences presidents. Eugene becomes more active, particularly at the end of his life, when he makes a decision to fight.”
To answer the question of whether Oyelowo’s role is minor, well, it’s definitely NOT; it’s the second most prominent role in the film, aside from Whitaker’s.
To borrow from Tambay’s post, in which our editor stated, “Reads like it'll maybe be more of a struggle between generations on how to deal with the racism blacks experienced in this country over those 34 years - the pacifist older father's approach versus the rebellious younger son's radicalism. And eventually, the father maybe comes over to the son's side of things, or they meet each other in the middle.”
Ding, ding ding! That’s really it folks! BUT, it’s not as simple as it sounds; those developments involve a lot of hardship and tragedy in this drama. The only criticism I could potentially have is that the film may be in danger of being an overacted, heavy-handed mess IF the direction and acting falter. It also runs the risk of being ridiculed if one of the presidents' characterizations is off or exaggerated. Hopefully, these skilled actors will deliver some of their finest performances. I kept imagining them in their respective roles, at least the ones we know of, and I’m optimistic they will deliver.
Another important detail to get right will be the make-up, as almost the whole cast will age several decades. Other actors would definitely have to be cast for the young Whitaker/Cecil and Oprah/Gloria.
As far as prominent Black characters left to be cast, there’s his other son Charles – from child to adult, his oldest son’s Louis/Oyelowo’s girlfriend, the other butlers/kitchen staff and Cecil and Gloria’s close friends; Oh! And Dr. Martin Luther King.
So, it’s not what I expected. At one point while reading the script, I was afraid it would veer into a Hollywood feel good formula, but it didn’t. There will be some amusing and charming moments for sure, but it’s very much a drama, and you’ll be glad to know the butler and his son are our heroes. By the way, expect a long film.
As far as the rating, I understand Lee’s struggle to try to keep a PG-13 rating (see our post here). There’s definitely violence, foul language and a little nudity in the script.
Although it’s not literally based on Allen’s life, it certainly was/is the story of many Black men and women during the Civil Rights Era, Black Panther Movement, Vietnam War to Obama’s election. And, like I said, it's a tearjerker, not only because of the tragedies the butler and his family undergo, but because you will be transported into time, and through this very personal story, you'll experience history, specifically African American history, and its horrors, fears, anger, resentments, triumphs and joys. The narrative is heartfelt, affecting, and it ultimately rings true.