Set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, Lee Daniels’ The Butler stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, who escapes the cotton fields of the South to work as a White House butler during seven presidential administrations, from 1957 to 1986. The job allows Cecil to create a comfortable, middle-class life for his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and their two sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley). But Cecil’s commitment to the first family leads to tensions at home. Gloria turns to booze and the affections of a neighbor, while Louis defies his dad and becomes a radical activist, protesting for racial equality. Ready to be served some Butler fun facts? Read on:
1. The Movie Formerly Known as… Before you think director Lee Daniels is getting all Tyler Perry by slapping his name on everything, you should know the film (from The Weinstein Company) was originally called The Butler. But Warner Brothers objected, claiming it’s the same name as a 1916 silent short film in their archive. After much legal wrangling, TWC was forced to change the title and correct all promotional advertising. Thank heaven, because you might confuse the two films and see the 97-year-old one by mistake.
2. A Butler and His Wife: Cecil Gaines may be a fictional character, but he’s based on a real-life White House butler, Eugene Allen, who was profiled in the 2008 Washington Post article that inspired the film. Whitaker is wonderfully understated as the titular butler, and he’s well matched by Winfrey as his loving but long-suffering spouse. The role marks the Media Queen’s first return to acting since Beloved in 1998. Watch for the scene where she dances to Soul Train while wearing a bodysuit and Afro wig. Groovy!
3. Hall of Presidents: A host of celebrities portray the different commanders in chief, with mixed results. Robin Williams plays Dwight D. Eisenhower with quiet contemplation, while James Marsden eerily embodies John F. Kennedy. Liev Schreiber is unrecognizable as a brash Lyndon B. Johnson, but it’s tough to buy John Cusack—even with a lengthened nose—as Richard Nixon. Alan Rickman makes a terrific Ronald Reagan, and though some conservatives may cry foul, Jane Fonda is flawless as FLOTUS Nancy Reagan.
4. Don’t Know Much About History? The Butler doesn’t feel like a history lesson, though you’ll still get one. Mixing archival news footage with recreated events, the movie covers decades of American politics and race relations—from the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr., to the Freedom Riders and Black Panther movements, to the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal. Despite all the historical stuff, the film resonates on an emotional level because of the central story involving Cecil and his family.
5. 5.Bzzzzzzz…Bzzzzzzz: Hear that? It’s the Oscar buzz already surrounding The Butler, which not only boasts a star-studded cast but also a celebrated creative team. Powerhouse producer Laura Ziskin (Pretty Woman, Spider-Man franchise) worked on this passion project until her untimely death in June 2011. She brought onboard both director Daniels (an Academy Award nominee for Precious) and screenwriter Danny Strong (an Emmy winner for HBO’s Game Change). Expect the “For Your Consideration” campaign to start early.
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