It’s good to see black directors claim movies about the African American experience. Unsurprisingly since the legacy of slavery and oppression are burned into the experience of African Americans it’s a story that they want to tell.
A month or so back I got around to reviewing 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, an African American. The film won Best Picture, but I found it excruciatingly hard to watch, probably because of its challenging subject. An African American, Lee Daniels, also directed The Butler. Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) was never a slave, but he grew up in the Deep South so segregated that he might as well have been a slave. Any Negro perceived as uppity, and some that weren’t, were lynched with impunity. It’s part of Cecil’s world growing up as a boy on a cotton plantation.
The slave-holding mentality died hard. His parents and he worked on the plantation sowing and picking cotton. One day one of the owners of the plantation drags his mother off to the shack where he unceremoniously rapes her. When Cecil prods his father to protest what happened, his father’s tepid protest leads to a bullet in his brain. Of course, there is no justice for this murder. The plantation workers have to act like nothing unusual just happened.
Fortunately this is about as gruesome as the movie gets but racial injustice is its constant theme. In Cecil’s unusual case, his father’s murder leads to him being trained as a “house nigger” at the plantation, where he learns how to act proper and take care of white folk. Memories of his father’s death and being in the same house with his murderer leads him to escape as soon as he is old enough. A series of fortunate coincidences leads to a job as a butler in a hotel and eventually to one in Washington D.C. where his professionalism, as well as his ability to be attentive but always deferring leads him to a position in the White House as one of its butlers. There Cecil attends the president, his family and friends over many administrations starting with the Eisenhower Administration.
Cecil may be just a butler, but he has reached close to the pinnacle of professional jobs for blacks at the time. His new life could hardly be any more different from his boyhood of picking cotton on the plantation. He lives a middle class life in Washington D.C., marries a fine woman named Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and settles down into a lifestyle many whites would envy.
Of course, being black, even with the privilege of serving the president and first family, he is still a victim of discrimination. He is denied promotion opportunities available to whites within the White House and his boss is fine with paying blacks less than whites. Still, Cecil is intoxicated with his position and access and works long hours. This leads to marital strain and eventually infidelity from his resentful and neglected wife. Meanwhile, his son Charlie (Elijah Kelley) grows up and becomes active in the civil rights movement. He is among the group of blacks that dare to sit down at a whites-only lunch counter at a Woolworths store in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960, and marches with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama. Much of his college and early adult years involve getting roughed up by whites. He is lucky to escape alive, and he has a close encounter with death when his bus tries to pass a bridge into Alabama. His choices though deeply disturb Cecil, to the point they become estranged over them. These add to the reasons his wife is hitting the bottle so much.
This butler’s story is thus quite an interesting contrast. He works for presidents who generally sympathize with oppression against blacks but are still uncomfortable around them, even with their butlers who see them intimately all the time. While mostly presidents give lip service to civil rights, some take up what looks like a dubious cause, including presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Cecil gets to know his presidents too intimately at times, handing President Johnson the toilet paper for example (Johnson was notorious for using the bathroom in front of staff and guests) and even consoling a distraught Jackie Kennedy just hours after her husband’s assassination, with her husband’s blood stains on her clothes and legs.
Mostly though he has reflexively learned to keep his mouth shut. Nixon (played by John Cusack) tries to convince the butlers to vote for Republicans in 1960 by giving them campaign buttons. President Reagan discusses his support for the apartheid regime in South Africa right in front of him. Cecil seems to understand though that real equality for blacks is a long way off, while he is sensitive to the notion that the presidents he serves generally are moving the civil rights issue as quickly as they can.
The adventures of his son in the South form a major backdrop to the story, as does his wife’s many issues. Much of the movie concentrates on the crazy 1960s, including the rise of the Black Panther movement (which sucks in his son) and the race riots, with scenes of the rioting in Washington D.C. after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. It moves too quickly for Cecil, who is estranged from his son in part because he cannot sort through his own feelings on racism given the dual worlds he inhabits.
The Butler certainly has a lighter tone in general that 12 Years a Slave, but in many ways it is more informative, and certainly more topical as many of us remember the crazy 1960s and the civil rights era. Cecil’s juxtaposition provides an interesting perspective by being at the boundary between two worlds. Of the two movies, The Butler is actually the more interesting and certainly the easier to stomach. It’s nice to see Oprah Winfrey in a movie again. She has lost none of her acting ability due to her talk show years. Overall Daniels does a convincing job of rendering the times, portraying the White House and finding a fine ensemble of actors to carry it out.
Curiously the film was never even nominated for an Oscar, perhaps because 12 Years a Slave sucked all the oxygen from competing films about racism. It did win a number of other awards. It is also worth two hours of your time, particularly if you were born after the civil rights era. If you were, it will give you an intimate look into those times as well as introduce you to a number of presidents you probably only read about. The casting is sometimes curious – Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower? – so in a way it’s better to be ignorant about these ex-presidents as us older folk knew them. The movie does manage to entertain, inform and for the younger crowd to enlighten as well.
3.2 out of four-points.