[16 August 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It happens early on, almost immediately. We are introduced to Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) as he sits outside the door of what appears to be a very elaborate and fancy office. He is old and pensive, thinking back on his soon to be celebrated life. As said memories wash over him, we are on a plantation-like setting in the Deep South. Gaines and his parents are sharecroppers, working for the Simon Legree like Westfall family. As Papa Gaines warns his son about focusing on the job at hand and staying out of the way of the evil overseer, Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfur), the man shows up, grabs the boy’s momma, and takes her into a nearby shack. The sounds of rape resonate. Later, when Papa confronts him, the wicked white man shoots him dead.
And then it comes. The gasp. The audible audience gasp. It will be one of many throughout the course of Lee Daniel’s Forrest Gump-esque excursion through racial inequality, segregation, and the civil rights movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Indeed, The Butler is positioned as a history lesson (lite) for all those too young to remember a time when African Americans were forced to live within their own inequitable bubble. While everyone should apply the Holocaust like mantra of “Never Forget” over the horrific events that happened on our own shores over the last 400 years, Daniels and his all star cast want to concentrate specifically on the post-war world where Blacks were dismissed and demeaned, restricted to their own lesser facilities, their own section of business establishments, and the back of the bus.
Daniels also makes it clear that said subservience was still not enough to satisfy the White Man’s bloodlust, and one of the first images a grown Cecil sees as he makes his way to an eventual job as a servant in the White House is a pair of young African American boys, hanging, lynched from a city street lamp. Within 10 minutes of the movie starting, we’ve had two unimaginable hate crimes, and two loud responses from the viewers in attendance. Audience reaction here is crucial, since it underscores both the purpose of the project and Daniels’ approach. By taking the real life story of Eugene Allen and turning it into this fictionalized overview of the last five decades, the director of Precious and The Paperboy finds a way to work almost every important event in the push for minority equality into the story of one man, his unusual access to the powers in charge, and the son who sought a different path to justice.
Indeed, The Butler is set up is a slightly odd manner. Cecil is seen as both a noble man of color doing the best he can in a society set up to see him dead, not just down and out. On the other hand, his oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes radicalized while in college, and takes up the cause during such infamous events as the Greensboro sit-in, working with the Freedom Riders, and eventually becoming part of Dr. Martin Luther King’s inner circle. After said leader’s assassination, the boy turns to the Black Panthers for purpose, even when they argue for the very things his previous philosophy preached against. It all comes to a head when Louis accuses his father of being an “Uncle Tom.” Said showdown separates the Gaines men, with the rest of the movie made to bring them back together.
There are a lot of other melodramatic elements on display here, from Cecil’s blousy, hard drinking wife (played by Oprah Winfrey) to Louis’s lady love who is Angela Davis without the Communist agenda. The various Presidents we meet include a lax Eisenhower (Robin Williams), a chipper if long suffering JFK (James Marsden), the mad dog Texas racism of Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber), and a surreal, almost science fiction like look at Nixon (John Cusack). Eventually, Cecil finds a “friend” in Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman), whose wife Nancy (Jane Fonda) finally invites the long suffering servant to a State Dinner…as a guest. Within his working environment, Cecil shares responsibilities with pals James (Lenny Kravtiz) and Carter (Cuba Gooding Jr.) while consistently arguing for equal pay and equal treatment among all the White House staff, no matter their skin tone.
It’s all very noble and well intentioned, peppered with enough affronts to keep those mandatory gasps coming…and those sounds are important because they point out a crucial flaw in any film about race - that is, that we are still dealing with an audience in denial. Tell someone in a casual dinner conversation about the treatment of minorities in this country during the ‘50s and ‘60s and you’re bound to get either somber acknowledgements or, most of the time, shocking indignation. Indeed, it was only forty years ago when Federal Troops had to enforced busing laws to continue the desegregation Congress had approved years earlier. In fact, we are still fighting many of those same battles in these supposedly ‘enlightened’ times. The Butler understands both guilt and denial, and while the African Americans in the crowd know their history, the majority try to marginalize it, resulting is shock when confronted with it.
It’s perturbing. Daniels doesn’t linger over the shared legacy of our past. JFK’s killing gets a single scene where Jackie sits in the White House, refusing to take off her blood-spattered clothing. Similarly, Dr. King’s death is handled in a voice over, and a vision of DC in full blown riot mode. The Civil Rights Act is measured against Johnson’s constant use of the N-word (which every black member of the staff understands and accepts) while Nixon’s attempt to reach out to minorities is viewed through the veil of slick political opportunism. Even Reagan, who apparently came to the rescue of the White House staff when their overseer like boss wouldn’t give them raises or promotions, is filtered through a suggestion of senility, as if the only way a White President could help minority Americans would be via a slip of the mind.
In fact, The Butler is a decent film, more forceful than the disingenuously hokey The Help. It doesn’t trade on shit pie or brazen sentimentality to make its points. It’s confrontational without being comforting, leaving open many questions about approach and reaction that it never plans on addressing later on. It’s all about the gasps, about getting White America to wake up to what happened before and offer it up in a convenient, relatively complete package (a few websites have fact checked the film and, aside from some major changes to the ‘Gaines’ family, Cecil/Eugene did witness almost all of what we see). The performances compound its impact, aided by the quiet dignity almost everyone brings to their roles. Yet in 2013, with all we’ve learned and supposedly overcome, the gasps are telling. For some, the events in The Butler will be previously unknown and now new. That should never be the case, considering how shortsighted we can be as a society.