Let’s just call it The Butler (2013). That’ll be my contribution to the civil rights movement. The rights of all people to the freedom from stupid copyright laws. And The Butler is all about civil rights. The marketing for the movie did suggest that it was some kind of Forrest Gump (1994) starring Forest Whitaker with the Civil Rights movement as a colorful backdrop along one man’s journey through time, taking him close to famous people (played by other famous people). But it’s really more than that. It begins with a quotation from Martin Luther King against the image of two lynched black people and ends with a dedication to the people involved in the Civil Rights movement. This is a Civil Rights movie and an interesting phenomenon took place while I was watching. It came into my mind to qualify the film in terms of The Help (2011) or The Blind Side (2009), but the only sociological implications I naturally drew were related to the character rather than the film. That’s informative, I think.
Cecil Gaines (Michael Rainey Jr./Aml Ameen/Forest Whitaker) was picking cotton with his father in Macon, GA and the overseer (Alex Pettyfer) pulled his mother (Mariah Carey) aside for a (routine) sexual assault. When Cecil asked his father (David Banner) what he’s going to do about it, his father calls to the overseer, “Hey.” The overseer, after a brief pause, shoots the man in the head. So, the vaguely benign woman of the house (Vanessa Redgrave) brings in young Cecil as “a [member of the] house[hold staff].” When he becomes old enough, he leaves so as to avoid being killed himself and butles his way to the White House. He has a wife (Oprah Winfrey) and two boys, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Isaac White/Elijah Kelley), and friends in fellow butlers Carter (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and James (Lenny Kravitz). From his place in the White House, Cecil sees the Civil Rights movement unfold through the eyes of the presidents (Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, [skip Ford, skip Carter] and Alan Rickman) he serves. But his son Louis sees it unfold in real time, as it happens, and it’s a long and dark road.
Early on, the movie seemed a little too interested in Cecil’s job (and the aesthetic qualities that cleaning and serving possess) and not particularly engaged with Cecil as a man. But that’s because I misunderstood the movie. It isn’t a character study, it’s a sociological or historical study. The Butler takes on a tightly nuanced subject in domestic service by Black people in this era. Why nuanced? Cecil (and those who work with him) take a great deal of pride in a job that positions them as supplicants on a formal level and smiling at despicable individuals is taken to be a sign of quality.
At the same time–and Martin Luther King (the character) provides this–the dignity and capacity shown by these men undermines popular stereotypes for those who oppose nondiscrimination. There’s a paradox I heard somewhere that in the South, they hate the Black people but love the Black man while in the North they love the Black people but hate the Black man. The only truth there is that people will make exceptions for their prejudices when faced with their implications, but then it also ignores those people who are consistent. So, for inspiring these sorts of observations (and thinking through them while Cecil carries trays from one place to another), The Butler must be a nuanced film.
Part of my trouble, and I suspect this will be a common one, is conflating the Butler and The Butler. This isn’t really Cecil’s story. Cecil is a bystander that found a place that provided some dignity and found it sufficient. Cecil’s position was not unlike those white people who silently observed the terrible goings-on in the South by television. Cecil says at one point, “It was like we were living in two different worlds.” If director Lee Daniels and writer Danny Strong go a little wrong, it is in their failure to keep Louis in the frame towards the latter third of the film. Perhaps I could be reminded, but I cannot think of a film that closely examined the Civil Rights movement from the fifties through the seventies in the epic tone that The Butler initially provides. The closest I can think of is Malcolm X (1992) and, because it’s about Malcolm X, doesn’t cover the sit-ins and Freedom Riders. But that small qualm is probably my only one for the whole movie.
For the bulk of the film, Daniels juxtaposes Cecil’s domestic service against Louis’s activism and it’s very provocative. With Cecil and Louis, The Butler also concerns these various presidents and their consensus perceptions. Again, these aren’t really character studies. If you want to get into the mind of these individuals, you will be disappointed. There just isn’t the time or, probably, the inclination. Instead, we get character types like Eisenhower the reluctant sympathizer, Kennedy, the idealistic convert to the cause, Johnson, the uncouth supporter, Nixon, the cynical pragmatist, and then Reagan, a half-reluctant antagonist. If you want to get Red and Blue about things, you’ll probably be offended by these depictions (if you’re Red) despite their rough accuracy. You might also blanch at the near genuflection for the Obama election. It’s a moving sequence, but smells too sweet to be sincere. [I did half hope for a cameo, but it didn’t happen.]
But all this sounds very loaded, doesn’t it. It might read to the casual viewer to be preachy or heavy or cerebral. I don’t think it is any of those things. At its core is a drama about a man and his family during a turbulent time in our history. Everything I’ve been talking about is really something I took in with me or walked out considering. You saw, I hope, the litany of great actors in the film (kindly listed on the poster as well). I freely admit that I expected Winfrey to over-act the whole thing. I saw a scene once from The Color Purple (1985) and thought “Oomph.” I was wrong, she was good and totally devoted to the character who never once approached the heroic.
That’s another interesting thing about The Butler. There aren’t many (if any) pure heroes. For all but Louis, it seemed more like everyone was the unwilling hostage of a large group of bigoted fools who could out-do the Nazis in everything but organizational abilities. Looking at it, it’s hard to understand the dilemma. There’s a recurring joke in the British series Yes Minister (1980-84) where the civil servant, Sir Humphrey (Nigel Hawthorne), would keep the politician, Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington), from doing things the civil service didn’t like simply by saying, “That’s very courageous, Minister.” But then, of course, there’s also Congress.