By Lane Roberts
In light of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington, it seems appropriate to discuss Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
In the film, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), based on the real-life Eugene Allen, is born into slavery in the 1920s and goes on to serve in the White House as a butler for over 30 years.
Cecil experienced the injustice and violence faced by African Americans that Dr. King sought to abolish.
As an African American, Cecil is no stranger to unequal treatment. His sons attend segregated schools and he is paid far less by the White House than his white colleagues. Unlike most African Americans at that time, however, Cecil also has a unique insight into how privileged white men respond to racial inequality and how various adminstrations seek to improve the treatment of African Americans, if at all.
The Butler shoves its agenda unapologetically in viewers’ faces. The film is entertaining but serves primarily as a history lesson and statement about Hollywood’s treatment of America’s checkered past.
In an industry in which Holocaust movies are more or less guaranteed to be Oscar contenders, studio executives seem far less comfortable producing films that shine the spotlight on our own nation’s mistreatment of its citizens.
The movie addresses this dichotomy. During a scene in which Cecil revisits the cotton fields where he grew up, he reflects, “Americans always turn a blind eye to our own. We look out to the world and judge. We hear about the concentration camps, but these camps went on for 200 years in America.”
Many scenes throughout the movie are weaved with actual broadcast images from the Civil Rights Movement. These scenes are not pleasant to witness, but it is important to provide an opportunity to confront the violence and injustice faced by the black community in the same way Holocaust films may help people process the devastation of that dark period of history.
That said, the film definitely takes a light approach to some of the heavier aspects of the era. In what has been criticized as the “Forrest Gump approach to the Civil Rights Movement,” Cecil seems to exist separately from the oppression and inequality faced by his peers while his oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), places himself in the midst of the revolution, taking part in lunch counter sit-ins, attending rallies held by Malcom X and Dr. King, joining the Freedom Riders and hanging out with the Black Panthers.
Cecil’s dedication to the White House puts him at odds with Louis, who looks down on what he perceives as his father’s subservience to the white man. For Louis, who comes of age in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, it becomes difficult for him to understand his father’s attitude.
The conflict between father and son continues to escalate as Cecil lives peacefully behind the doors of the White House while Louis sprints in the opposite direction, challenging the harsh realities of a segregated world.
It is almost comical how scenes in which a well-groomed Cecil and his peers quietly shuffling through the White House are juxtaposed with scenes of Louis risking his life in some of the most dangerous streets in America.
Thanks to brilliant performances by Whitaker, Oyelowo and Oprah Winfrey, who stars as Cecil’s lonely, alcoholic wife, Gloria, The Butler is far from disappointing.
At the very least, it begins a much-needed dialogue on the most important American story of the 20th century.