The invisible man as prism: ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ helps convey the story of 20th century American civil rights

September 20, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Sept. 20, 2013

Near the very beginning of the cumbersomely titled Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the camera flies quickly over a vast field in such a fashion that budding cotton plants are, at least at first, indistinguishable from the sun-dappled waves of the ocean.

We are seeing a Macon, Ga., plantation in 1926, a place and time where young Cecil Gaines and his family and friends are little better than slaves. After Thomas Westfall — a white man and a land owner, or at least the son of one — rapes Gaines’ mother, Earl Gaines confronts Westfall verbally. Westfall pulls a gun and shoots the other man in the head as the horrified 8-year-old watches.

That event forever changes the world for Cecil. Matron Annabeth Westfall takes young Gaines under her wing with a mixture of kindness and cruelty; mere seconds after Earl has been shot to death, she curtly tells the child to stop crying and informs him that he’ll become a “house nigger” now.

Young Gaines takes to his new life as a serving boy. But at age 15, believing that Thomas Westfall was bound to take his own life, Gaines runs away and becomes the protégé of a butler at a hotel in North Carolina. A few scenes later, a middle-aged Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is working as a butler at a fancy Washington, D.C., hotel in the 1950s; a few scenes after that, the husband and father joins the domestic staff of the White House under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The Butler, as I shall refer to it, is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, who literally served every American president from Harry Truman through Ronald Reagan. Allen’s life, as originally chronicled by Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood, has been adapted for the screen by Danny Strong. The feature is directed by Lee Daniels, whose last two outings were The Paperboy (2012) and Precious (2009).

The more recent movie, which was widely panned, was based on a simply brilliant Pete Dexter novel about a small, swampy Florida town in the 1960s. The earlier one, which was beloved, was based on the novel Push by Sapphire and centers on an impoverished, quasi-literate black teenager in New York City in the 1980s. (Disclosure: I haven’t read Push, I’ve not seen The Paperboy and I’ve only seen part of Beloved.)

In a fashion, The Butler builds on elements from Daniels’ two earlier movies. The new story filters several decades of American history through the prism of a family man and a servant who is torn between two sides. On the one hand, Gaines seeks to be loyal to his wife and children and to the culture and plight of black Americans. Yet he is also dedicated to his white employers and to a professional ethos essentially forged by white Americans and fostered by both whites and blacks. While the film is centered in the District of Columbia, its beginning and some subsequent scenes take place in the rural Deep South.

There’s a fundamental problem with making a movie about a man whose twin ambitions are to anticipate the needs of the White House staff and yet to be invisible or nearly so when he is in the room. The issue, of course, is that Gaines is in the main a passive character. He can’t influence national policy on civil rights or any other issue. (Heck, it appears to be many many years before the eponymous butler even arranges for his wife to visit the White House.)

The Butler coyly hints that Gaines may have subtly influenced various presidents’ thinking on race through short exchanges that he had with them over the years. However, these scenes struck me as silly and largely unbelievable.

And yet Gaines is easy to identify with because he experiences the tumult of the 20th century the same way most ordinary people did, often feeling confusion, pain and helplessness in the face of its most memorable events and problems.

Gaines knows, or thinks he knows, exactly how to conduct himself while on the job. (Touchingly, though, he is helpless to console the bereaved Jackie Kennedy after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.) But he can do little more than attempt to wait out his wife Gloria’s bout with alcoholism. Perhaps worse, his efforts to set boundaries and rules that will safeguard his two sons as they increasingly venture into the hostile world beyond D.C.’s black community are largely futile.

Many of The Butler’s most powerful scenes, in fact, involve Cecil’s elder son, Louis, who drops out of college to become a civil rights activist, a Freedom Rider and later a Black Panther. After Louis and his compatriots ask to be served in white-only seats at a lunch counter, resentful locals insult and assault the group. In the movie’s most terrifying episode, Louis’ bus is intercepted in a small Southern town. Members of the Ku Klux Klan and their sympathizers attack the vehicle and its passengers with fists, bats and even a bomb. Later, we see municipal authorities loose fire hoses and police dogs on Louis and his girlfriend.

These story threads were all to me more compelling than most of the glimpses we see of Gaines interacting with Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard Nixon — first seen as a vice president who is awkwardly campaigning for the nation’s top job — and Reagan. (Scenes featuring Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, if indeed any were written and filmed, were left on the cutting-room floor.)

In the end, what makes The Butler interesting and worthwhile is also what makes it hard to watch: Its unflinching recap of the systematic injustices inflicted upon African-Americans for much of the early 20th century. No, Gaines is not a particularly dynamic character. But he and his family members are sympathetic ones, and their story winds up as a sobering and moving reminder of the many often glaring ways in which the United States has failed to live up to its ideals.

The film is anchored by excellent performances from Whitaker as the title character, Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines and David Oyelowo as Louis Gaines. The best cameos are turned in by James Marsden and Minka Kelly as the Kennedys, Liev Schreiber as Johnson, and Alan Rickman (a Brit) and Jane Fonda (a Commie traitor, or maybe not) as the Reagans.

In the end, The Butler is a solid film, although not a great one. In its way, it is both touching and important, and it’s something many American — adults and children alike — would benefit from seeing.

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