Sep 16, 2013
The Butler, directed by Lee Daniels, provides the eyes and ears on an important part of American history from 1926 to the election of President Obama. It is loosely inspired by the real life of Eugene Allen, who worked for the White House for 34 years until he retired as head butler in 1986.
The movie begins in 2009, where an elderly Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) recounts his life story while waiting in the White House. Gaines was raised on a cotton plantation in 1920s Macon, Georgia by his sharecropping parents. One day the farm’s owner rapes Cecil’s mother. Cecil’s father confronts the owner and is shot dead.
Cecil is taken in by the estate’s caretaker, who teaches Cecil to be a house servant. She teaches him that he should be invisible to the white people he is serving. And Cecil learns to have “two face”: the friendly, nonthreatening face that must be worn when entering the white man’s world, as well as the authentic, human, multidimensional face that is worn at home in the presence of other black people.
Seeing the various presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan from the perspective of the butlers and maids allows us to see their racism, weaknesses and extravagant life style.
There are many refreshing aspects to this movie. One is there is no white hero to alleviate white guilt. Another is Gaines being depicted neither as an apolitical clown nor as a larger-than-life hero. He fights, in his way, for higher pay for himself and the other butlers.
Also refreshing are the scenes at Cecil Gaines’ home, where neighbors and co-workers could socialize with each other and just be themselves without having to worry about white folks. You also get a real sense of community among black neighbors.
The scope of the film, from the Jim Crow South through the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements and after, is vast. For white audiences, it gives a little bit the sense of what it was like to be black in those times. But also, showing the history of black struggles brings it closer to home and reminds us that it was only fifty years ago.
This movie shows those struggles up close and personal. While one of Gaines’ sons is killed in Viet Nam, the other had been politicized by the murder of Emmett Till and joins the movement. It is here we see the determination and courage of young people fighting against segregation and racism.
The film shows part of the story of the struggles of black people, told with respect, and emphasizing its real significance in American history. Well worth watching.