Being Black in a White Nation
by J. Scott Southworth
Watch it… if you have any interest in all in the American Civil Rights movement, for The Butler provides a provocative examination of the movement from a variety of perspectives.
Avoid it… if you think that all history is boring and relevance is a drag, or if you believe that any film that has a motive other than to entertain is clearly wasting its time.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler manages to be both an epic and an intimate personal film. Its characters are not broad cinematic heroes, but are instead resolutely human, flawed and at times baffled by their place in history.
The story follows the life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) as he flees from his life as a sharecropper on a cotton farm, falling into hospitality work and eventually into a coveted position as a butler in the White House. It also follows his son Louis (David Oyelowo), who becomes involved early on in the Civil Rights movement. Cecil fears for his son’s safety, while threats of violence seem to follow Louis wherever he goes. He would prefer that Louis leave the movement, but his son is firm in his commitment. Each, in his own way, is trying to do the best that he can.
We already know how the story ends. The Civil Rights movement was a monumental success and the risks of young men and women like Louis were necessary for that success to take place. However, by placing Cecil at the heart of the narrative, The Butler highlights just how uncertain that success must have seemed while it was taking place.
Cecil was born into a life of slavery. All his life he has lived in a white man’s world and he has made a good life for himself, his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and his sons by acknowledging that fact. He sees the threat of his son losing it all and at no point does it seem possible that the movement will succeed. Success does not seem certain, and the route to success is not obvious.
Louis and his girlfriend Carol live in a state of constant fear where any loud noise on the street might be mistaken for the firing of a gun. This is a side of Civil Rights that is often glossed over. They were always in danger, and their families knew it. Cecil’s fear for his son’s protests the impossibility to not understand, despite being on the wrong side of history.
The Butler is the fourth film by director Lee Daniels, whose Precious made waves back in 2009 when it was released at Sundance.
In The Butler, he shows again his knack for understanding the complexities of human relationships. The technical aspects are all functional, getting the job done without being flashy or distracting. Many of the scenes seem designed with a fly-on-the-wall perspective in mind, allowing the viewers an almost voyeuristic observation into the everyday lives of the characters. There is very fine detail when touching on the small aspects– this allows the monumental historical events surrounding them to seem more real. Because the characters have been developed as people first, the place in history they’re experiencing seems all the more vast and bewildering.
There are a few casting flubs with the presidents – I will confess that, when Robin Williams was introduced as President Eisenhower, I was unable to see him as anyone other than Robin Williams. But, for the most part, the cast does an excellent job, particularly the leads.
The only other flaw I saw with the film is that the ending is perhaps too neat. The Butler seems too ready to declare victory for Civil Rights, when I suspect the victory is only partial. Social and economic equality is still more a dream than a reality in many places in the country. The road ahead is not obvious, and it will not be, but – as The Butler tells us – neither was it in the past.
But I agree that we are making progress, and it’s progress that The Butler seems most intent on celebrating. If the progress continues, then maybe someday we will encounter an age when much of America no longer fancies itself a white nation, but one of all peoples and all backgrounds united in liberty and justice for all.