How ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ Forces Americans to Confront Civil Rights

Lee Daniels' The Butler Forest Whitaker

REARVIEW: A Variety critic asks why Hollywood doesn't look at race more often

Lee Daniels’ The Butler” has a big job. Unlike its lead character, who is instructed to anticipate what the white folks want and otherwise make himself invisible in any room, Daniels’ ambitious historical portrait conspicuously privileges black audiences, bringing welcome attention to the African-American experience of the past half-century. Seeing the movie on opening night at L.A.’s Rave cinema with a mostly-black audience drove home how significant stories like this are for people of color.

It’s not a great movie, but it is an important one, seeking an entry point into a subject that studio execs have evidently decided audiences don’t care to see: namely, our country’s recent history of troubled race relations. “The Butler” even acknowledges this challenge by giving Forest Whitaker’s character the following lines late in the film: “Americans always turn a blind eye to what we done to our own. We look out to the world and judge. We hear about the concentration camps. Well, these camps (referring to slave quarters shown onscreen) went on for 200 years in America.”

In addition to whatever it says about the American public, this accusation dares to question why an industry so receptive to Holocaust stories has been so reluctant to produce more movies about the myriad human-rights violations perpetrated on our own shores. With “The Butler,” Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong took a “Forrest Gump”-style “witness to history” approach, inviting audiences to relive the American civil-rights movement through the eyes of Eugene Allen, an African-American distinguished by his service to eight different administrations during his 34-year tenure as a White House butler.

For the sake of the film, Allen is reconceived as the fictional Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), whose presence represents one of the few constants in a building where agendas shift every four to eight years with the changing of the presidency. “We have no tolerance for politics at the White House,” a colleague warns when Gaines accepts the job, and sure enough, the character’s willingness to suppress his personal views makes him an ideal candidate for the position. It also makes Gaines an exasperating character at times, refusing to stand up for his ideals, except at home, where he scolds his son Louis (David Oyelowo) for his activism.

“The Butler” aims to be many things: family melodrama, history lesson, political statement. But what it most effectively represents is a beginning. There’s far too much here to cram into one feature, especially when it comes to the rotating cast of American presidents (Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, Alan Rickman as Reagan, etc.), who would have been better served by a more robust made-for-TV approach, a la NBC’s 1979 mini “Backstairs at the White House.” Still, “The Butler” is a philosophical improvement on both “Lincoln” and “The Help” in that it focuses on how black characters reshaped their own destiny, rather than simply allowing white audiences to celebrate their most progressive ancestors.

It’s a sad situation that the few stories Hollywood has given us about America’s checkered race relations — from “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “Places in the Heart” to “Mississippi Burning” — tend to privilege white characters. Generally speaking, there are far too few films made about America’s slave-holding past, and even fewer that acknowledge the horrific laws put in place post-emancipation in order to keep the black man indentured (the PBS docu “Slavery by Another Name” suggests dozens of feature-worthy stories of oppression). But “The Butler” can’t be relied upon to fill in all the gaps; the film breezes by much of its own historical context, failing to mention the scandal incurred when Lincoln asked Frederick Douglass to dine at the White House, and thereby undercutting the significance when Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda) invites Gaines and his wife (Oprah Winfrey) to such a dinner years later.

The most shocking moment in “The Butler” comes early, in 1926, when Gaines witnesses a plantation owner rape his mother and then murder his father out of spite. “Any white man could kill any of us at any time and not be punished for it,” he observes. Although this scene was fictionalized for the sake of the film, it is representative of the black experience for an appalling portion of our nation’s past. And while it certainly isn’t pleasant to witness such injustices, we desperately need more chances to confront them onscreen for the same reasons that Holocaust movies have been so important to processing those events.

Fortunately, this year brings greater opportunities than most. In addition to Quentin Tarantino’s late-2012 slave-revenge fantasy “Django Unchained,” we have “The Butler,” “Fruitvale Station,” Steve McQueen’s forthcoming “12 Years a Slave” and the Hallmark Channel’s “The Watsons Go to Birmingham,” each of which engage with issues of prejudice and race inequality still simmering in our culture. Instead of asking whether audiences are ready for such stories, we should be asking why they have taken so long to reach us.

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  1. tcbrown223 says:

    When someone says “get over it” to a horrible time in American history (not just Black history, AMERICAN history) they show their ignorance of how our history shaped our country. We’ve come a long way but still have a long way to go in how we treat each other. Get over yourself and learn something about America, the good and the bad.

  2. ValleyGirl says:

    I appreciate this thoughtful article. I’ve read so much online with the theme “get over it” or “that (slavery) was a long time ago, move on” I wonder if people have hearts. As a black woman, I believe it is an embarrassing history. During junior high and high school it was all about Rosa Parks and Dr. King. My parents born in the 30’s, NEVER talked about this, nor did other black parents.
    I moved from California to DC to attend Howard University, and I learned much more, but at Duke University, on a fellowship, I learned about the lunch counter sit-ins in depth (see the documentary called ‘February One’).

    Regardless of the Holocaust getting more “play” I do believe Hollywood tries.
    The town is just discovering people want to see movies like this.
    I saw it twice – one audience was 90% white and the other 75% black. The latter enjoyed the black humor that the former could not find.

    I am so happy that the movie showed how moved Gaines was during the election of Obama. I am also happy to read such a brave and thoughtful article.
    I plan to see the movie one more time before it hits Netflix.

    Take the whole family to this one!

  3. Ted Trent says:

    I loved the film. I’m sure it will be my favorite film of the year. My life partner and I went to see it on Saturday night at 10 PM. I’ve was completely there because Oprah Winfrey is my modern day Martin Luther King Jr. I think it might win Best Picture of the Year. All the actors should be Best Actor/Actress nominees too. My only concern about political films like this is as follows. I understand that the picture is about how a black man lives in a white U.S.A. I understand that this butler saw his daddy get shot because he was a black slave. Got it. But since the film included the Obama administration in its timeline of events, I felt it had to have at least one more sentence or note about the “changed” social environment in our current United States of America. Especially since you have Oprah in the film, she caused so much transformation in this country regarding racial issues. I think acknowledging our country for our progress would have been even more amazing. Was it accomplished in the scene were Obama was elected? Possibly. But I bet when Oprah was watching this film, there is a minute when she thought to herself, “I don’t know…I think white America has come a little farther than this film gives credit to them for having come.” I know this wasn’t a film about white America. But the film did go there in almost every scene. It did address how each white President handled the issue and I think the film judged all of America based on the actions of the President. Shall I judge our country as a gay American based on the fact that Obama still hasn’t made it legal in all our states for me to be treated equally with my own husband? Maybe. History will tell us what is so. Should I blame Obama if gay marriage isn’t made legal for all of us? But I believe it would have been amazing to highlight just a few more of the amazing accomplishments in American culture where we have embraced our differences like in sports, music, education, etc. As a gay man, I can continue to look at select groups and judge all of America for the continued inequality towards my life partner and I. Or, I can look at the hearts of the straight men and women I know as announce that “I’m free at last.” I guess I’m saying that since the film followed that timeline all the way up to Obama and that the film had the largest mouthpiece of the 20th and 21st Centuries sitting right there on camera (Oprah), it might have been interesting to see just a little bit more at the end of the film. Imagine Oprah watching the Oprah show. We have come so far so fast as a nation and I hope we can begin celebrating our victories one day soon.

    • Peter Debruge says:

      Slavery “ended” in 1863, but many systems remained to force black Americans to work for white men in the years afterwards. Cecil’s father is a sharecropper in the scene you describe, not a slave, and yet the laws still permitted white men to behave like that at the time (1926 in Macon, Georgia). While the situation has improved in recent years, many Americans don’t realize just how long the inequality persisted post-abolition … which is one of the reasons this shameful aspect of America’s past MUST be taught and MUST be portrayed onscreen.

      • Ted Trent says:

        I agree. I’m just hurting on the inside because I don’t want black American’s to think that all white people think the way this movie portrays. I know it was that way and is that way to much extent, but it’s not that way with a majority of people in my opinion. I do think films like this are a must. I just think we need to make sure their audiences believe everyone still feels this way. My great, great grandparents are from Germany. As a gay German American, I grew up always embarrassed to say I’m from Germany. The point is that neither my parents or grandparents relate to Germany expect by blood. But in American history, we make the German people out to be evil. I know because I grew up in America. Bad people do bad things no matter their skin color or national heritage.

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