The Butler Serves Racial Equality

Review of The Butler, Directed by Lee Daniels 

While ostensibly a film about a longtime butler in the White House, Lee Daniels’s The Butler is actually about the civil rights movement. The film was inspired by a Washington Post article about Eugene Allens, who served as a White House butler under eight presidents. The Post article appeared the Friday after Barack Obama’s presidential election win—a nod to his victory as a culmination of civil rights history. The audience is treated to the tale of an almost Forrest Gump-like life in which Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), the butler, gets a front row seat to the various facets of the civil rights movement.

Cecil Gaines was born in Georgia and grew up picking cotton. We are at the heart, the quintessence, of the African-American metanarrative. His mother is raped, his father killed for a single word of protest, and Cecil is taken off the fields to learn how to serve in the house. Thus begins Cecil’s education in butlery. Cecil eventually leaves the plantation and finds work under an older black butler at a hotel. Thus begins Cecil’s education in how to make it in the white man’s world. The idea is repeated in the film: the black man must have two faces, one for who he really is, and one for the white man. To make it in the white man’s world, you must play by the white man’s rules.

Cecil eventually finds himself serving in a hotel in Washington, DC, where he is spotted by a White House staffing agent who gets him a job at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. One expects the film to continue its focus on Cecil and his story, but in reality the film is just as much about his family. Cecil and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) have two sons, Louis and Charlie. The lives of these family members touch all major aspects of the civil rights movement. Louis learns about the philosophy of nonviolence, becomes a Freedom Rider, and participates in what is portrayed as the first sit-in. He appears to then become a member of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s inner circle. But when King is assassinated, Louis joins the Black Panthers.

Charlie, on the other hand, takes up arms in the Vietnam War, a choice that highlights the role the Vietnam War played in civil rights. Charlie declares that his brother may be fighting against his country, but he intended to fight for it. The brothers demonstrate a clear divide in the right way forward.

From Cecil’s vantage point, audiences witness key civil rights decisions in various presidential administrations: Dwight Eisenhower’s decision regarding the Little Rock Nine, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon B. Johnson’s assumption of the phrase “we shall overcome” (and the necessary LBJ “bathroom” treatment of his subordinates), Richard Nixon’s nervous breakdown due to the Watergate scandal, and many more. The story of the civil rights movement at both the ground level and at the highest echelon of politics—The Butler has it all.

Unfortunately, while covering a multitude of perspectives and undercurrents that created this big-tent movement, The Butler hardly speaks to the Christian influences behind King’s message of love and nonviolence. One cannot listen to King’s speeches without being moved by the biblical imagery and convictions that underpinned his great endeavor. In a current cultural milieu where Christianity is on the defensive and often portrayed as backward and premodern, The Butler missed the opportunity to stir some healthy debate. The civil rights movement should be considered a proud moment in Christian history where a reverend inspired a nation to change course and let justice roll down like water.

The Butler is surprisingly cohesive, despite the potentially meandering nature of trying to tie in so many dimensions of the civil rights movement. Cecil becomes the perfect vehicle for such a prolonged meditation. There is much here that students of the civil rights movement will catch that may not be apparent to the casual viewer. But no matter your level of knowledge about the movement, the film’s conclusion feels a bit forced. The conclusion is the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and Cecil getting to meet the first African-American President of the United States.

Perhaps it’s because Barack Obama’s election is a still-recent memory and thus any portrayal in a movie will feel skewed. Maybe it’s just that The Butler laid it on thick enough that audiences actually feel handled. Audiences will either nod their heads in approval at this direct lineage of civil rights movement to the 2008 election or will shake their heads at what they see as blatant political messaging. Whatever the case, The Butler is a moving tribute to the civil rights movement.

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