‘The Butler’ – a generational look at racial bias

August 29, 2013 2:13 PM

In “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” title character Cecil Gaines is told there is no room for politics at the White House.  The film, however, portrays a tumultuous journey of over 80 years, chronicling not only Gaines’ life as a White House butler, but the volatile politics of twentieth century America.

The film begins with the steady rise of Gaines (Forest Whitaker), an African American, to the role of a White House butler.  He is motivated to leave the Deep South to find a better life for himself and abandon a life filled with turmoil.

butler2-wAfter finally finding a job, Gaines’ first employer teaches him to always anticipate what people will want, thereby molding him at a very young age into an exemplary butler in the eyes of people of power.

Gaines is recommended for a job as a butler in Washington D.C., where he is later discovered by a White House staffer and hired.

Taking the job at the White House, Gaines tells his growing family that “I’m working for the white man to make things better for us.”  Throughout the movie, director Daniels successfully portrays a dichotomous relationship between the ideas of how “working for the white man” can either perpetuate racism or fight against it.

The revolving office of each newly elected President and the provocative issues of that age’s political climate give a face to such a dynamic.

For example, during Gaines’ employment at the White House while Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams) is President, the butler witnesses Eisenhower’s hesitancy to use troops to enforce school desegregation.  This issue is no big deal in the Gaines household, but Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo) quietly takes it on.

Later, during the Kennedy presidency, Louis is going to college in the South, much against his father’s liking.  Louis is participating in the Freedom Rides and frequently getting arrested.  While Cecil urges his son to come home, Louis knows what he’s doing is worth fighting for.

Daniels uses Cecil’s submissiveness, agreeability, and willingness to do whatever the President and First Family ask, to contrast Louis’ fervent feelings against the oppressive South.  After a precarious altercation with white supremacists, Louis tells his father, “If I can’t sit at any lunch counter I want, I might as well be dead.”

The assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. also prove to be subtle conflicts in the film’s plot line.  Cecil, who feels “working for the white man” will eliminate racism, is devastated by the loss of not only his President, but his boss, and even debatably, his greatest champion, JFK.  On the other hand, when Martin Luther King Jr. is shot, Louis is the one who is devastated.

Cecil’s younger son Charlie is thrown into the chaos when Louis returns home and the two brothers are at odds about the budding war in Vietnam.  “You want to fight your country.  I want to fight for it,” Charlie tells Louis as he explains that he is going to enlist.

The suggestion of Charlie going off to war, and the dominant story line of Louis defying his father at every turn, makes “The Butler” about much more than a new-age servant.

The alternating plots of Cecil’s rocky relationship with his wife (Oprah Winfrey), and Cecil’s revolving relationship with each of the First Families, similarly contributes to the overarching idea that “The Butler” is a story about family – family being lost, family being found in the most unlikely places, and family coming back to you even when you thought they were gone forever.

The film goes on to portray Cecil during the presidencies of Nixon through Reagan, at which time Cecil finally resigns.

Upon his resignation, Cecil feels a great deal of conflict about staying faithfully on as a butler, or facing the harsh truth that his son Louis has been trying to teach him all these years about “working for the white man.”  The film goes on to portray other presidencies after Cecil’s resignation, ending with the Obama administration.

“The Butler” is a movie with a message, and you should see it for that.  But even if you’re looking to just see a good movie, “The Butler” excels in storytelling and weaving together plot lines, unlike many multi-layered movies of today.  The ending was so moving that I was brought to tears.  It is an important film to see, and I would recommend it to all audiences.

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