The Butler serves up a chronicle of the Civil Rights movement

by Maurice Mcleod

I sat down to watch Lee Daniel’s The Butler, unsure about what sort of film I was about to see.

The film tells the story of Cecile Gaines, a black butler who served under seven presidents at the White House while the battle for Civil Rights engulfed the US.

I feared I was in for another sanitised view of the this tumultuous period of US history with black ‘victims’ nobly shouldering various insults with dignity and honour.

There were easy parallels to draw with The Help, Tate Taylor’s Oscar nominated screenplay, which looked at the lives of black housemaids serving white families in the Southern US during the same period.

While I enjoyed The Help, I was left feeling unfulfilled because the film focused so much on the White Saviour.

Even the title of Lee Daniel’s film brought up unpleasant memories of 80s Soap spin-off Benson, which saw Robert Guillaume play the eponymous wisecracking butler who had ideas above his station and on hearing the doorbell would frequently enquire ‘you want me to get that?’, infuriating his owners (sorry I mean bosses) the Tates.

header-trailer-for-lee-daniels-the-butler-with-forest-whitaker

What I got was in fact a nuanced look at the civil rights era through the eyes of Gaines, tenderly played by Forest Whitaker.

The film, based loosely on the life of former White House head butler Eugene Allen, chronicles Gaines’s journey from the cotton fields of Georgia to Obama’s Oval Office.

Daniels, the director behind Precious and producer of the excellent Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman uses Gaines as a symbol of the African American generation that came before the revolutionaries of the 60s and 70s.

In the opening scenes of the film, a young Gaines watches as his mother is raped and his father is shot dead by a white cotton field owner.

We later hear Gaines describe the world he eventually finds beyond the cotton fields.

“No one would give me a job or food, no place to sleep. Any white man could kill anyone of us at anytime, and not be wanted for it. The law wasn’t on our side, the law was against us. I was hungry all the time.”

Much of the film’s drama revolves around the tension between Gaines and one of his two son’s Louis, played by British actor David Oyelowo.

Louis represents the civil rights generation. He’s ashamed of his father’s bowing and scraping and his father sees him as a hot-head who is doing nothing but bringing trouble down on the family and the black community in general.

david

Looking back, it’s easy to take Louis’s side in this argument and dismiss Cecil as an Uncle Tom who was too afraid to stand up and demand his rights in the way that his freedom bus riding, Martin Luther King following, Black Panther son does, but this would be a mistake.

The film shows just how perilous it was to be black in the US in the first half of the 20th Century. Young Gaines and his generation had to endure the Strange Fruit of black bodies swinging from trees and the hand-to-mouth existence outside the quasi-slavery cotton fields.

It was their suffering that emboldened their children’s generation and gave birth to the church groups that cradled much of the early movement.

As Gloria Gaines angrily tells her son at the end of dinner scene, “Everything you are and everything you have is because of that Butler”.

Criticising this generation for not standing up to their oppression is as ridiculous as black people who now say, “I would never have been a slave, I just wouldn’t have put up with it”.

While those people definitely existed, most didn’t exist for very long.

The film also shows that Gaines eventually grows to appreciate the struggle that his son goes through. He realises that he should have supported him more and judged him less.

This is a message for both generations. We see how both relied on the other and that the political earth is constantly shifting beneath our feet.

The film, which also stars Oprah Winfrey as Gaines’s long suffering, sometime cheating, wife Gloria; Cuba Gooding Junior as his wisecracking fellow butler Carter; and Terence Howard as his cuckolding friend Howard, topped the US Box Office when it was released there in August.

Much of the interest was in the portrayal of the seven presidents that Gaines serves under.

Lee Daniels' The Butler

A host of stars including Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as JFK, John Cusack as Nixon and Alan Rickman as Reagan help give the story its historical context.

Most are shown either to grudgingly accept the Civil Rights movement or to be against it.

Ronald Reagan’s son Michael has accused the film of portraying his dad as a racist because of his resistance to sanctions against apartheid South Africa.

Reagan’s supporters point out he and Thatcher were worried about communist elements in the ANC which they feared would turn the country into another Cuba if the regime were brought down.

I believe you can never call anyone a racist because you can’t know another person’s soul. You can only judge their actions.

Whether you call the act of bolstering a regime, which was brutally oppressing its subjects on the basis of their skin colour, simply to ensure US and British companies continued to benefit from the oppression ‘racist’ or not seems a moot point.

These presidents and their various stances on black equality are a sideshow anyway. The film doesn’t claim to be a documentary, it’s a look at the 20th century black struggle in the US.

white guilt

Another criticism which has a little more depth to it is that the film is yet another presentation of the suffering black people endured in past and is a form of guilt porn for white liberals.

I’d argue there are plenty of films portraying contemporary black life and either glorifying or denigrating the hardships this often involves. Reminding people how these hardships came to be is a good thing.

Louis progresses from a freedom rider, taking the abuse and turning the other cheek, to the much more radical Black Panthers who believed in delivering material benefits for black communities and determined self defence.

“We ain’t getting beat no more”, he tells his parents over a fractious dinner.

Eventually he becomes involved in mainstream politics and helps get Obama elected.

It’s this analogy for the black struggle that I have the most issue with.

The presented narrative is: things were bad, black people grinned and bore it, then they rose up, America saw sense and now we have a black president.

This is far too neat a tale and the ending which sees Gaines walking into the brightly lit doorway of Obama’s Oval Office to meet America’s first black president as if walking through the pearly gates, is an image too far.

No wonder Obama is said to have wept watching the film.

While I realise that this is a tidy way for the film to wrap up, I would have liked to see at least a nod to the continuing struggle.

Without this nod, The Butler feels like it lets modern America, the America of Trayvon Martin and Jonathan Ferrell, off the hook.

It seems to say: “Hey, your folks did all that horrible stuff but you guys voted for a black president, so we’re quits”.

Maurice Mcleod is a London-based journalist, a regular blogger, and a member of Writers of Colour. He was communications manager at NCVO and is the director of communications company Marmoset Media. Maurice tweets as @mowords

Related articles:

Doing the right thing: Black film and tv in a biased world (mediadiversified.org)

Black Films Take Center Stage at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival (The Huffington Post)

A Breakout Year for Black Films (The New York Times)

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