The Butler (2013; dir. Lee Daniels) begins in perilous fashion. A young black boy working with his family in a cotton field in 1927 watches his mother led to a nearby shack for sex with the son of the plantation owner. Afterwards, when the white man emerges from the shack, the boy’s father confronts him and is shot dead. The plantation mistress walks into the field, orders the boy to stop crying, and tells him that she is going to take him into her house and train him to be a “house nigger.”
I use the term "perilous" because the opening scene suggested I was about to watch a nightmarish melodrama of extremes lacking subtlety or intelligence, a film that compels us to view the players purely in terms of victims and victimizers, of clearly marked boundaries of good and evil. Not so. Although slavery was long over in 1927, many black Southerners still worked under conditions approaching slavery, especially black farm workers and sharecroppers. The possibility of violence by white Southerners against blacks was ever present. But scenes as extreme as the one that opens this film were rare. As bad as conditions were for many Southern blacks in 1927, few young black boys witnessed crimes against their parents so heinous as these. The Butler is a more balanced and nuanced film than its opening scene suggests.
The Butler is loosely based on the life of a man who served as butler for seven presidents in the White House. It chronicles the fictional life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), the man who the young boy in the cotton field became. After the plantation mistress teaches him how to serve, he finds a job in a nearby town and later in a posh Washington, D. C., hotel. Ultimately he begins work in the White House as one of several butlers during the Eisenhower administration. In the background, as one president succeeds another, history takes place. The events of the Civil Rights movement serve as markers that carry us from the cotton field to the White House in a literal sense: in the final scene Cecil prepares to meet the first black president of the United States. The Butler is a history of the nation during the Civil Rights movement, with its murders and demonstrations and achievements, and of the political disagreements and struggles in the black community during these decades. Cecil observes these events from his post in the White House, while his son, Louis, participates in them. Cecil fears for his son’s safety and disagrees with the activism of the civil rights movement, while his son doesn’t understand his father’s passive, conservative attitudes.
The Butler shares similarities with Forrest Gump, which follows the life of a young Southerner as history unfolds around him. Forrest Gump is more a pageant sort of play than this film, which, by dramatizing contrasting views of the struggle of African Americans for equality, offers a more analytical view of events as they occur. It employs a series of contrasting scenes that show Cecil Gaines at work in the White House, serving the white politicians who run the country, against scenes of his son Louis, who takes an increasingly activist role in the Civil Rights movement. (A younger son is killed in Viet Nam). At times the film seems to favor the son’s extremism. Increasingly, however, it focuses on the butler Cecil. Its attitude becomes clear in a scene where Martin Luther King is talking to a group of student activists, one of whom is Louis, who is ashamed of his father’s role as a butler to white men. When King learns that Louis’s father is a butler, he comments on the importance of people like Cecil, who serve with quiet dignity, gradually changing by their example the attitudes of white Americans towards American blacks. The Butler endorses both points of view, but when Louis faces the prospect of deeper involvement with the Black Panthers as they move to adopt violent tactics, he backs away. Later we learn he has earned a graduate degree and entered politics. Paralleling the film’s exploration of two different ways in which African Americans were involved in the civil rights struggle is the story of the father and son estranged from one another and ultimately reconciled.
Some elements of The Butler are predictable, and it can be overly simplistic and sentimental, but its encompassing view of the civil rights years seeks to reconcile points of view that were once at extreme odds. Its efforts at conciliation extend beyond the African American community. Most of the major white American figures in the film appear to struggle with their own attitudes towards race. Ronald Reagan, well played by Alan Rickman, overturns policies supported by the movement but he also worries that he is on the wrong side of the struggle. Only Nixon comes across as a one-sided caricature.