It opens with an image of two dead black men, lynched, with an American flag flapping in the breeze. A quote from Martin Luther King appears. It’s clear from the start, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a political movie, but Jean-Luc Godard reminded us, “All art is political”. It has a very clear opinion and point of view, and I give it a lot of credit for embracing it. Far too often a movie tries to hedge its bets and not offend this side of the aisle or that. They attempt to cloak the story in a suicidal mission of historical accuracy, making people believe that what they see on the screen was true to how it happened in real life. Who can be offended by history? Nothing seen on the screen is how it happened in real life. All movies based on true events, inspired by real accounts, and from a true story are in essence historical fictions because they reconstruct history. That is fine, that is what they need to be, but as long as we are reconstructing history, can’t we go ahead and comment? Can’t we view these events through a prism of one’s own point of view? Isn’t that why we go to the movies in the first place? To see someone else’s story unfold for us, to see and understand his or her viewpoint? Atticus Fitch taught Scout that, “you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them”. We may not be able to walk around in Cecil Gain’s well-worn dress shoes, but thanks to director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong, we can see the world through the eyes of Cecil Gains. From the cotton fields of the Jim Crow south to a White House butler for eight Presidents. The great American myth is that of Horatio Alger, a country where anyone can become more than the place of their birth, from rags to riches. Cecil is that myth incarnate. He shows that hard work opens the door, luck takes you through, but humility is what keeps you there.
Cecil Gains (the butler of the title played by Forest Whitaker) is based on Eugene Allen, the real life butler who served eight presidents over a span of 34 years. Daniels and Strong worked from an article about Allen, “A Butler Well Served By This Election” by Wil Haygood, and used it to discuss three main talking points: the Civil Rights Movement, the rift between a Father and Son, and how blacks are seen and see themselves in White society. Beginning with Cecil as a young boy on a cotton plantation, Earl Gaines (David Banner) tells his son, “This is the white man’s world, we just live in it.” Proof of this statement is horrifically acted out in front of eight-year-old Cecil (Michael Rainey Jr.) when a plantation owner (Alex Pettyfer) takes Cecil’s mother (Mariah Carey) and rapes her in a nearby shed. When the man emerges, Earl speaks one word to him, and is shot dead for his troubles. There is no question that Cecil knows whose world this is. The Plantation Mother (Vanessa Redgrave) takes pity on Cecil and moves him into the house and teaches him to serve. Cecil never goes to school, but he grows up refined and educated. He learns two very important lessons, one as a server, “A room should feel empty when you’re in it” and a survival lesson, a black man must have two faces he shows the world, one for blacks and one for whites.
Cecil is a fast learner and works his way from one hotel to the next, eventually landing a gig as a butler at The White House. He first serves under Eisenhower (Robin Williams) and even though he is virtually invisible to the people he waits on, Cecil is a personality that cannot be ignored. Every President he serves engages him at some crucial moment in history. Cecil manages to sway them not with impassioned speeches, or folksy wisdom, but by restrain, reserve, and manners. This is the face that he shows white people, not just a servant’s face, but not another lunatic, angrily screaming and shouting, frighten all around him. He can control his temper and can pick the moment to speak and when to hold his tongue. He changes their minds by knowing his place.
Cecil is clearly the protagonist of the movie, yet White Supremacy is oddly not the antagonist. Intolerance, racism, and violence are treated like symptoms of the world Cecil inhabits. Just as characters in space movies have to deal with the fact that there is no oxygen in space, Cecil and his companions have to deal with the racial intolerance of mid-century America. But that is not what Cecil is fighting against, his antagonist and source of countless headaches is his eldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo). Louis resents his father and his Uncle Tom ways and openly defies him. Louis demands equal rights, but feels that the best course of action is protest. He attends sit-ins, rides freedom buses, hangs with MLK, joins the Black Panthers, bounces in and out of jail, and eventually finds his true calling as a politician. Both Cecil and Louis are fighting for their rights and their own stake in this world, but its going to take some time for them to see that they are on the same side. I can’t help but wonder if Daniels isn’t saying, “Look, if we spent half the energy that we spend fighting each other, fighting together, we might actually get somewhere.”
The dynamic of Cecil and Louis is the dynamic of fathers and sons. The father takes one path to success, the son takes the other. Both get there, but through different means. Read without influence of color, this relationship depicts the gap between two generations: Baby Boomers who sacrificed so much for their children, and the children who never asked for that sacrifice in the first place. Louis wants to fight the racism and segregation doled out by bigoted whites head on and resents his father for working to serve them. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Nelsan Ellis) fills Louis in that his father isn’t just a butler, he is actually doing his part to change perception. By doing his job, and doing it well, he changes the perceptions of those around him. By being kind, he brings kindness back to him. It’s easy to say that we ought to rise up and challenge our overlords, the masters who stand on our neck and keep us from achieving our place. Violence and rebellion will take you to a lot of places, but it is built upon the subversion of those around us everyday. Cecil Gains was that very subversion, his mere presence turning the hearts of Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan, and maybe even Nixon (though I doubt that was even possible). He showed these people that blacks were not people to fear, but people to trust. That goes along way when you are fighting hatred. However, activism and aggression are required to move the revolution forward, and without the work that Louis does, Cecil’s progress would be all for naught.
The Butler isn’t a perfect movie and does contain some missteps. At times, Cecil and Louis’ constant ability to find themselves at the right time and right place makes the movie feel a little like Black Forrest Gump (MLK’s speech to Louis apparently came right before he stepped outside for a cigarette on a Memphis hotel balcony), and the sheer number of name actors that show up for small cameos begins to feel like stunt casting, but none of this detracts from the strengths. Oprah Winfrey is shockingly good as a character actor, and the living room scenes with several actors laughing and talking are impressive for their camera placement and editing. The movie does loose some steam toward the end, falling into melodrama when it approaches the election of 2008, but put yourself in the character’s role: a child from the Jim Crowe South grows up to see a black man elected President of the United States. Regardless of politics or feelings about Obama, how can we not feel joy and elation for Cecil? Daniels smartly does not introduce an actor portraying Obama, instead ending his movie with a long shot of Cecil walking down the White House hallway while we hear the voices of JFK, LBJ, and finally Obama talking about civil rights in America. If anything, it was the ending Samuel L. Jackson wanted with last year’s Lincoln. I hope Sam likes this ending, I certainly did.