In a hardscrabble blue collar town in northwest central Ohio, The Butler opened Friday, August 16, 2013. It was five bucks a ticket before the noon showing. As the closing credits rolled, the sound of applause from the mostly white elderly audience. At first just a few, then in a nanosecond, the entire audience enveloped. Doesn't happen too often at a movie theatre. Why it's so memorable when it does. After all, there are no actors onstage to take a bow.
Forest Whitaker who won Best Actor for The Last King of Scotland (2006), will probably win another. America fell in love with him today. Let's face it. He hasn't always played the most lovable characters. He won his Academy Award as Uganda's barbarous dictator, Idi Amin.
Who knew Oprah Winfrey would be delivering an Academy Award worthy performance two years after exiting her nationally syndicated talk show? Four words for film couple, Whitaker/ Winfrey: Made For Each Other. Like Bogart and Bacall, Humphrey and Lauren, that is. Smouldering. We believed them as a husband and wife.
From the Academy Award winning Crash (2005), Terrence Howard so real, just right. Every woman alive has met up with this kind of guy, and can recite his wannabe adulterous pickup lines backwards and forwards. That coathanger pinwheel! What will these men think of next?
In real life, Terrence Howard shares my nephew Josh's alma mater, Brooklyn's Pratt Institute and my plastic surgeon brother Jim's March 11th birthday. Director Lee Daniels, a Pratt connection, too. In 2010, Robert DeNiro's bride, Grace Hightower DeNiro, presented Daniels with Pratt's Creative Spirit Award. ("Grace Hightower & Coffees of Rwanda" started this year to help Rwandans raise their income levels by marketing their products internationally.)
Then there was Jane Fonda's cameo. Whoever would have bet Jane from Vassar, would be playing Smith College grad Nancy Reagan? Although Jane is taller, the physical resemblance is striking. In her two-piece red suit, posing for pics, Jane looked just like Nancy.
Most stunning goes to Robin Williams as Republican President/ WWII Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, playing it straight. Not for laughs. Doing it at the time of the historic Brown v. Board of Education , the U.S. Supreme Court school integration ruling handed down in 1954, the year Oprah Winfrey was born. It is worth the price of the ticket just to see Williams play Ike.
Director Lee Daniels? Well, he is all that. Daniels, working his magic, knows how to get what he wants from his leading ladies. Whether it's Halle Berry, bringing home the first Best Actress Oscar ever for an African-American in Monster's Ball (2001) or Gabourey Sidibe getting a Best Actress nom for Precious (2009), and now Harvard's own Oprah Winfrey in a film inspired by real-life White House butler, Eugene Allen, who worked for Presidents Truman through Reagan. Yes, Oprah with her 2013 Harvard LL.D.
Oprah's Gloria Gaines. I have an aunt named Gloria gone to Heaven above. No drinker and smoker like Oprah's Gloria. But having Oprah play a character in her name? She'd have loved it!
True artistry displayed by Whitaker and Winfrey in acting aging so believably, assisted so wonderfully by a magnificent hair, makeup and wardrobe team. Not easy going through so many decades of life in one film.
What makes Lee Daniels' films so darn good? The brilliant casting and textured layering through and through. Knowing how to weave history with entertainment with moral message. Too many filmmakers today shy away from the moral message of a film.
Monster's Ball wasn't just about interracial dating. It questioned the morality of the death penalty. Showing how it brutalizes not only the condemned but the executioners, prison guards, and the public in whose name it is done. The Butler is a different setting, different time and place. It goes beyond the prisoner in his steel prison to suggesting society as a whole, is a prison. Showing you don't need bars to be in prison. You can be imprisoned within the recesses of your own mind. Your own prejudices and fears put up those bars.
On closing credits, Danny Strong's name came up first. As it should. No coincidence he wrote this screenplay and his name is Strong. Strong and bold flashbacks of nonviolent protest training alternate with the exploding ugliness every which way and sideways at the Woolworth lunch counter sit-in. Like the scalding splash of black coffee into Whitaker's black son's face. David Oyelowo, playing the son, Louis, in a masterfully subtle performance. Powerfully understated.
Not just the Woolworth counter encounter. The Klan roasting alive the integrated bus of black and white Freedom Riders. Then throwing in the slammer those who managed to survive that holocaust. Like Oyelowo's Louis who then turns Black Panther,
Recall former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's Vanderbilt U. commencement address in 2004. At age eight, she lost her friend since kindergarten, Denise McNair, in the Birmingham bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the 50th anniversary September 15. Or Oprah herself growing up in Mississippi with a grandmother who advised her to learn how to hang clothes on the rope line outdoors so she could make her way in life.
Communicating to her that she'd always be on the outside of that rope line looking in, and not the politician on the inside of it.
A film for all, but especially for those viewing these events on a black and white TV set, the first time around, realizing it wasn't so black and white after all. Living through those years, watching once more, holding back the tears.
Harvey, Illinois bred Nelsan Ellis as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., tells Louis, embarrassed to say his dad's a White House butler that black domestics--maids, drivers, nannies, butlers, waiters, housemen-- had their roles to play in the civil rights movement and were no Uncle Toms: "They defied racial stereotypes by being hard working and trustworthy, young man."
They were the backbone of the civil rights movement. Holding back the tears.
Attorney Lonna Saunders chaired the Law & Media Committee of the American Bar Association for two terms and attended Stanford's Mass Media Institute. She studied Drama at Vassar and Dartmouth. Jean Arthur, said to be Frank Capra's favorite actress, was Lonna's acting teacher at Vassar. Lonna may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.