Forest Whitaker, John Cusack, Oprah Winfrey
One of the seminal scenes in Lee Daniels’ The Butler is where Cecil Gaines takes his wife, Gloria, to the plantation camp where he grew up. As they scan the vacant cabins deep in grass, he tells her how Americans will look outward, at The Holocaust and Apartheid, and protest about the injustices in other countries.
Camps like the one, however, have remained for over 200 years, he says, yet no one knows they are here. No one seems at all concerned.
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Indeed, this is the story’s theme caught well by the cinematography. There are very few outdoor scenes, certainly nothing vast as this one. No endless horizons here.
Each scene, even those in the streets, are so tightly shot that the audience will see into the soul of every character. The danger of their confrontations is intensified.
Nuance is the actors’ method of portraying the burning emotions and hatred lying just behind the eyes. Usually, the camera’s focus is so tight, not even the full head appears in the scene.
The camera closes in on each face to reveal the confounding dilemma of racism and its effect upon the individual, regardless of status.
Danger Heightened in Claustrophobic Scenes
As historical events unfold through archival footage, this camera work lays open the fear and rage during this era. One scene in particular, the Freedom Ride, shows college students crammed into a bus and reveals their claustrophobic space.
The viewer feels unable to move in such close quarters. This intensifies the horror to come.
All we see is a fiery molotov cocktail and, a moment later, an archival photo of the bus’s skeletal remains. Our imaginations can fill in the unseen story of terror and helplessness.
Many layers of danger persist throughout this biography of one man’s influence during this tumultuous era. Taught to be invisible in order to survive and prevail, Gaines tries to understand his college-educated son, who joins a series of protests that will lead to national civil rights legislation.
Gaines also struggles to keep his marriage intact as he works long hours at the White House, making paltry wages, yet is able to furnish his family a decent home and education for his two sons.
His own meek protest to the man who hired him fails when the man tells him “if you don’t like the conditions of your job, you can move on.”
Gaines suffers the added indignation of friends who call him a “house n*****,” yet he has come far beyond his “slave camp” youth in the 1920s. As Gaines rises in personal fortune, America also changes its attitudes as well as its laws in order to to survive and prevail.
The Past Decays
The scene at the plantation camp is the most open shot in the movie. The camera pulls back just enough to show a bygone system finally moldering into the earth as lush grass thrives upon its decay.
All ends well for Gaines, and the movie ends on a note of hope and progress made. It’s one story out of a myriad others that will never be individually displayed on a screen. Yet, The Butler (watch online) tells them all in soul-searching detail and power.