Since The Help premiered in 2011, Hollywood producers have dumped tons of cash into numerous movies about the African-American experience. From epics about slavery to salutes to the civil rights movement to the historic 2008 election of President Barack Obama, we’ve had a good two years to let Hollywood’s honcho producers’ simplistically guide the current narrative around the otherwise complicated history of African-American struggles. With movies like The Help, Lincoln, and Django Unchained behind us, there’s now the most literal portrayal of the African-American struggle yet: the recently released Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
This star-studded Hollywood production is loosely based on the true story of Eugene Allen, a butler who served in the White House for eight consecutive terms. In the movie, Allen is portrayed as Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker), a patient, diligent and steadfast domestic worker who began his career as a servant to Anna Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave) after the Westfall patriarch (Alex Pettfer) rapes Gaines’s mother (Mariah Carey) and kills his father (David Banner). We move through Gaines’s life as a young man on the plantation to eventually as a servant in an exclusive Washington, D.C. hotel. Life is different here; on the surface, he is much freer from the confines and limitations of rural life. But even a northern, dense city is still leads Gaines to lead, one of his former employers describes, a life of “two faces.” In the world of the black domestic servant, there is the face white people see and the one his family sees. As we learn about Gaines’s personal life, including his alcoholic cheating wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and two sons Charlie (Elijah Kelley) and Louis (David Oyelowo), we see these parallel lives. They are explicitly separate first: as an African American butler in an ever-changing White House–especially when it comes to race relations– and as a father struggling with his family, most notably Louis’s budding activism. As his frustration with his son grows, we also see a notable evolution from Cecil’s insistence (and mandate by the White House) on maintaining an apolitical stance to a growing disappointment with presidents who take a regressive approach to advancing civil rights.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is the type of summer fare that outperforms other summer movies because it has depth, a lot of sincerity and a story to tell. Still, it’s summer fare and by other standards, especially its outlandish predecessors, the movie is dull, and the characters are dry (aside from a marvelous performance by David Oyelowo). But I am thankful for a few things. The History Channel finally has some competition! There aren’t enough fictionalized accounts of this era, so this one for sure will be a staple. Even as it is facile, its willingness to portray the real violence that black activists and their white allies faced or treat The Black Panthers fairly is admirable. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed though. Because when we see civil rights activists like Louis, who is a student at Fisk University, stage a nonviolent sit-in at the segregated local diner, leading him and others to ultimately be brutalized and taken to jail; or a bus full of Freedom Riders torched by white nationalists; or Martin Luther King, Jr. on the day he was assassinated no less, we’re not surprised. At this point, that’s par for the course even in History Channel documentaries.
Historical dramas don’t charm or delight or touch audiences because of the history itself–no, historical events just inform at this point of stories that are told and told again without much more detail. So in a movie like The Butler, the personalities behind the events must entertain them. So when Cecil evolves in the face of the growing civil rights movement, endures with Gloria her struggle with alcoholism, and hesitates to support Charlie’s going to war in Vietnam while still maintaining composure amidst tumult in the White House, you can’t help but be touched. In one of its best sequences, Louis returns home as a devoted member of the growing Black Panther movement. A dinner table conversation explodes into a fight over black politics, generational differences and identity, forcing Louis to leave home. The relationship between Cecil and Louis for now is severed, but the inexplicable ties shared between father and son remains. When a despondent Cecil, not long thereafter, overhears Richard Nixon (John Cusack) ordering a full-throttled attack on the Party, this bond is clear. The sequence ends with a drunken Nixon pleading his innocence in the Watergate scandal to Cecil one late night. Cecil does not console him, but, instead, simply asks if he can do anything else.
Through the course of the rest of the movie, Cecil’s personal narration guides us through the Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) administrations. His staid character changes little, save his dining as a guest of the president and first lady Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda) at the state dinner while his colleagues serve him. Shortly thereafter, he quietly resigns in protest of Reagan’s veto of a bill sanctioning South Africa during apartheid. These touching scenes lose their value when placed in between archived footage highlighting single issues of those eras, because they completely ignore Cecil. Until Barack Obama’s election, we don’t know about his life because in the movie we never know about the era of George W. Bush. Even though Cecil did not work in the White House then, he did not work for Obama either. Yet in The Butler, Obama’s election bookends the civil rights movement. Controversy, except that which has been codified in the history books, is avoided. With a recent poll suggesting that most Louisianans are unsure if Obama is to blame for the Hurricane Katrina fiasco, clearly no movement is over (including that for quality public education).
So for a coming-of-age movie about conviction and courage that honors the activists of the civil rights movement suggesting the movement ends there is simply a disappointment. As we’ve recently witnessed, unarmed black boys returning home from the convenience carrying a bag of Skittles and wearing hooded sweaters are still easily killed. Cecil’s belief that black people still wear two faces in a white world lives on.