Based on the true story of Cecil Gaines, an African American White House butler whom served eight presidents, Lee Daniel’s The Butler spans several decades and gives us a glimpse into the civil rights movement through the eyes of a man whose had first-hand experience with racial hatred.
Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) grows up on a cotton plantation in the 1920’s. After his father is killed for standing up to the plantation owners, he is given a “house job.” With hard work and determination, Cecil makes his way to Washington DC and becomes a presidential butler. Always the quiet observer to the behind the scenes politics of the civil rights movement, the real conflict of the film stems from the growing separation between Cecil and his son Louis (David Oyelowo); who is on the front lines of the battle for racial equality.
The film is sweeping, with a majority of the drama following Cecil’s son Louis. Cecil himself faces very little overt conflict. He’s oblivious to his wife Gloria’s (Oprah Winfrey) affair, always gainfully employed, great at his job, and quietly simmers over his sons growing anger and resentment toward his service to “the white man.” Many heated arguments ensue between Cecil and Louis over Louis’s direct involvement in civil rights. Louis joins the Freedom Riders, is part of the infamous “Sit In,” and even joins the Black Panthers for a short stint (before realizing the violence preached by the Panthers is not for him).
The screenplay does an excellent job of attacking our emotions head on, offering many grisly glimpses into the brutalities faced by freedom fighters during the civil rights movement. An opening shot of two African-Americans lynched at the center of town beneath an American flag is quickly followed by a scene of Cecil’s mother Hattie (Mariah Carey) being raped and his father Earl (David Banner) being murdered for saying one word to the culprit—this sets the tone for two hours of haunting images. The “Sit In” scene, wherein several African American activists sit at a “whites only” designated lunch counter and refuse to move until they are served, offers a particularly brutal revisiting of shameful events of American history. Activists are verbally assaulted, spit on, beaten, burned, and endure many other horrors all while remaining stone faced. The film utilizes actual footage of the events through television news stories viewed by Cecil to further punch the point home that we are not that far removed from some of the most horrific injustices inflicted on our own citizens.
Whereas many scripts place the protagonist at the head of the conflict, facing all of the actions head on, The Butler bends the rules a bit and places our central character on the outskirts. Cecil is often privy to information intended for select ears only, and he continues to make the choice to stand firm in his job. Cecil is one of the first to hear of JFK’s assassination, as he is there to tend and comfort a blood spattered Jacqueline Kennedy (Minka Kelly) after his murder. When Richard Nixon (John Cusack) is indicted for the Watergate Scandal; Cecil is there with a cocktail.
Lee Daniel’s The Butler doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know, but in showing us what we already thought we knew, it reminds us, not through a few pages in a high school history book; but through a series of heart wrenching images that manage to shock even in these times of desensitization. From watching his father’s murder to watching Barack Obama elected to the presidency, Cecil Gaines observes a lifetime of battling hatred with a silver-serving tray in hand and a mask of feigned indifference.