Whether director Lee Daniels meant for it or not, his new film The Butler arrives at an important moment in our pop culture history. After this summer of Paula Deen slurs, the George Zimmerman trial, stop and frisk outrage, it is painfully clear that this country’s racial struggles are not a relic of the past, but rather, a prevalent and painful part of our country’s present. If so much can happen in a summer, imagine how much can happen in a lifetime. The Butler reflects upon our current condition by taking its audience on a journey through the decades of racial politics and private injustices that have lead up to now; and it does so through art, by subtly and seamlessly marrying the ideas of the political world and the private life. In its sweeping 80-year scope, the film both captures and encapsulates how much can change in one lifetime, and also how influenced one’s lifetime is by the politics of the moment.
The film, (officially titled Lee Daniels’ The Butler after an intellectual-property squabble), is expansive in scope yet grounded by the understated gravity of its leading man (Forest Whitaker). Taking his inspiration from a 2008 Washington Post article on the life of Eugene Allen – a White House butler who served during eight different presidential administrations – Daniels tracks the history of race in America from the Jim Crow south, to the Civil Rights Movement, to the election of Barack Obama. Anchoring this history to Cecil Gaines (the fictionalized version of Eugene Allen) Daniels and the film’s writer Danny Strong link the monumental events of the 20th century to one man’s life. By making that one man a black man working inside the White House, a complex personal and political perspective is built. Framing their film this way, they create a reality too rarely depicted; social change affects the everyman, and can be affected by any man.
There are two fundamental parallel relationships both driving the film and serving as its emotional heart. First there is the relationship between Cecil and his son Louis (David Oyelowo). The two men clash over politics, fraying their personal bond thanks to their very different approaches to Civil Rights. Where Cecil fights for black equality in an understated manner by working hard, defying stereotypes, and advocating for pay equality, Louis takes a more immersive role in 1960’s racial politics. Louis protests by sitting at segregated Woolworth counters, he joins the Freedom Riders on an ill-fated night journey, he is part of an inner-circle chatting with Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel, and attends a Black Panther strategy meeting. Though Cecil and Louis are fighting for the same political principles, the two characters represent outwardly divergent approaches to the historical moment. What the film does beautifully is portray the importance of the work of both men and also the exclusive nature of their ideologies – like father, like son. The Butler manages to do equal justice to both of these approaches, without passing judgment on either of them.
A further personal parallel set up is the juxtaposition of the Gaines family home with the White House. Because of the demanding hours of his job, Cecil’s private life and the life of his wife Gloria (a very good Oprah) are much affected by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Because of the political decisions being made at the White House, their personal-political life is affected as well. At one moment, Gloria says to Cecil, “I don’t care what happens in the White House. I care what happens in this house.” The irony there of course, is that what happens in the White House does affect what happens in her house, and to an extent what happens in every house.
Depicting a world that is racially split, The Butler makes a point to give importance to a character's race but also to a character's personal ideology. The film’s character’s, both white and black, are nuanced and thoughtful and represent the complex ideas of an individual rather than the often portrayed, and clearly oversimplified, cohesive mentality of a particular group. Here we have family members fighting the same fight but with different rules, we have presidents who spout racial slurs but also sign magnificent Civil Rights legislation. For the most part, ideas and individuals are not depicted as wholely good or bad, they are depicted as complicated and complex, and true to human nature.
At times the incredible scale of the film begins to teeter into something far too grand, and there are certainly moments when it feels more message than movie. The blur of the presidents, the quick changes from one historical moment to the next can be distracting, but also represent the pace by which years can often just flicker past while still packing in so much. Like Forrest Gump, The Butler at times becomes a history lesson of America’s recent past, but by linking the historical moment to the life of one man it represents just how deeply these political happenings hit us on a personal level. Be it the George Zimmerman trial, the election of Barack Obama, or the death of Martin Luther King, historic events, racially charged events, do not just happen in the headlines or in the White House they happen in every American home. What The Butler understands, and what The Butler wants us to understand, is that these watershed moments both make an impact on the everyman, and are impacted by the everyman. By packing so much of America's racial history into one movie and the history of one man, we get both a grand reminder of the ongoing racial struggles as they've developed over the last century, as well as a zeroing in on how these moments impact individual people and households — be that person a president or a butler, and be that household a middle class home or the White House.