Lee Daniels’ The Butler is the culmination of what blacks in Hollywood, from its Golden Age unto its present, expected our contested involvement in the movies could, should and would be. And it is the reason why not only African-American people, but all people, will pay for the movies.
It has been nearly two decades since I saw a movie twice in the theater in one weekend. I believe the last time I was in high school, and that film was Schindler’s List; despite its length, I saw it the first time with my sister at the Meadowview Theatre in Kankakee, Illinois, and then I went to see it once more before the school week started. Recently and on a whim, I broke from the hibernation of writing to finally go see The Butler, directed by Lee Daniels, written by Danny Strong, starring Forest Whitaker, supported by Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrance Howard, Lenny Kravitz, Robin Williams, Mariah Carey, Yaya Alafia, David Banner, David Oyelowo, Vanessa Redgrave, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Liev Schreiber and many more. And, then I saw it again.
It does not get any more stereotypical, potentially demeaning, culturally problematic and spiritually-conflicting for African-Americans than portrayals of our people in our violently historical places of servitude to America. The slave. The house nigger. The Mammy. The breeder. The garbageman. The oblivious medical test subject. The chauffeur. The nanny. The maid. The butler. To include the other stereotypes Daniels has brought to life within his career: the single mother, the stupid fat black boy, the negro convict, the abusive welfare mama, the ghetto fat black girl. And now: the uneducated black man, the angry black man, the loose black woman, the enchanting black seductress, the dysfunctional black family.
When creeping towards those subjects, none of which are unique to African-American people however unfortunately most attributed to us, the enormous commitment to empathy, compassion and humanity required is available to only the most benevolent and true of human artists. The Butler, certainly aided by a higher Hollywood budget than most are afforded, creates a tableau of black lives akin to an August Wilson play: whole but flawed, happy but tortured, working class but working, honest but persecuted, good but trying to be better, deeply nuanced but well-rounded. The historical breadth of the narrative approaches the epic. The cultural montaging of distinct generations is pristine. The character development is full and seamless. I truly love this film.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is loosely based upon the real-life story of White House Head Butler Eugene Allen, who worked for 34 years and under 8 Presidents until he retired as “Maitre D’Hotel” in 1986. To bring his experience to life as well as provide a retrospective on the 20th Century African-American experience, screenwriter Danny Strong invented Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker): a sharecropper’s son turned baby house nigger turned starving vagabond turned country club server turned hotel server turned White House pantry boy turned White House Head Butler. The film’s time travels from 1926 in Macon, Georgia, when African-Americans were still chattel on the vestiges of the southern cotton field industry, unto 2009, when President Barack Obama became inaugurated into the White House as the 44th President of the United States of America. Gaines is an American Everyman, beginning as a child brought forth in harrowing bildungsroman unto a senior citizen redeemed in full-circle spiritual odyssey.
Unlike the real-life Allen, who only had one son with his longtime wife Helene, The Butler’s fictitious Gaines bears two sons–most probably as a narrative device to introduce two tropes of the Black American post-Emancipation consciousness: the loyal hopeful who believes in and supports his country unto going to war for it, and the radical kamikaze who aims to tear down America at its infrastructural cores in return for centuries of slaughtered black men. Gaines is married to the alcoholic, chain-smoking and briefly adulterating Gloria, boldly but sublimely played by Oprah Winfrey. Gloria is a departure from the pressure to present bland, “strong” black women as either domineering or spineless female victims who exist only to react to their slaughtered black men. The White House characters are a carousel of presidents and wives from Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to Obama (in video footage of his 2008 election night). The exterior world is animated by Gaines’ faithful co-workers and neighbors, as well as his eldest son’s freedom-fighting allies and later radical teammates.
From the top, and in this time of Trayvon Martin’s incensing tragedy, The Butler confronts its audience with America’s rotten core of random and sanctioned violence against black men: Gaines enjoys a relatively ideal childhood (as much as it could be) working alongside his father (David Banner) in the cotton fields, until his father is shot dead in front of him by the plantation owners’ son who has just raped Gaines’ mother (Mariah Carey). The father, spurned by his son to “do something,” only manages a glaring “Hey?” before the rapist (Alex Pettyfer) shoots him to death. Much like Martin’s parents, this gut-wrenching circumstance is actually the fact of life which jettisons Gaines onto a path to wider change and national acclaim; the plantation master (Vanessa Redgrave) snatches him from his father’s dead body and throws him into her mansion to be a house boy, where she instructs him perfection means “The room should feel empty when you are here…I do not even want to hear you breathe.”
The complexity of The Butler, and therefore its highest achievement, is how to hold attention of audiences for the merit of its characters and story while also refusing to drop this pivotal trope upon which the story depends. Here is where Gaines’ relationship with his sons is crucial. While Gaines finds a place of uplift in his nation through service in an esteemed and highly confidential position in America’s Eastern capitol, one of his sons flees to the volatile South to join the fight for Civil Rights (David Oyolewo) while another joins the parade of disrespected black men who searched for restored pride through bravery in Vietnam (Elijah Kelley). Here is where The Butler holds its center as a document of black pain and holocaust, with the murder of Emmett Till as the catalyst for the elder son’s nationalist consciousness and the backlash against Civil Rights advancements as the spark of a younger son’s frail patriotism. From there, The Butler covers the daunting material of Klan vigilante violence, punishing police force brutality against peaceful black protests, desperate and wildly passionate efforts of the Black Panther Party, African-American beatings and false imprisonments, and chronically broken lives at the hands of racial prejudice.
Yet, there is a softening at its center as well: this comes through the friendships and marriages which hold on despite enormous pressures both common and extreme. Gaines’ employment at the White House turns him into a pseudo-absentee father whose wife answers back with an affair, substance abuse and threats to leave. His sons despise his reliance on old-fashioned discipline while they have trouble making sense of his servant status as a desirable path to follow. The Presidents skirt a tenuous obligation to serve not only a national constituency but a global affairs microscope, with their black servant staff also serving as unsung diplomats and advisors who slyly inserted the African-American voice into otherwise white-washed policy and affairs. The neighbors, friends, co-workers, co-workers’ wives and other relations operate on the fringe of this story as examples of African-American kinship rituals. “It takes a village to raise a child,” as the African proverb states.
Black Americans in film, and its genius actors and actresses, have always suffered from relegation to a “chitlin circuit” pander of our work to limited release in urban areas, limited press coverage in black media, limited awards consideration and (perhaps most significantly to the African-American historical condition overall) reduced economic advantages and gain. While our artists have persevered and continue to produce commendable, memorable work in spite of these challenges, such narrow viewing of our work gravely segments our films’ audiences. The last time an African-American captured a piece of Americana whereby black people existed in a story as whole beings in a world unto themselves but still (as in reality) part of a larger world of human beings of different races was probably evident in the career of Sydney Poitier: who, consequently, suffered from a softening into unreality as a consequence of that cinematic integration (a point made by a discriminating black nationalist in The Butler). With the exception of biopics about African-American celebrities such as Billie Holiday (Lady Sings the Blues) and Jackie Robinson (‘42), whites and blacks primarily exist side-by-side in films to showcase our adversarial positions and historically contrarian relationships. Or, when whites show up in a black film, and vice versa, we must get ready to languish in the terrors the formers have exacted upon the latters. Yet, most of us know there is more to blacks and whites in America than that–before Emancipation, after it, and especially now. The Butler breaks this predictable synergy in American film to show us the places and moments where blacks and whites operate, simply, as people doing their jobs and living their lives.
As a political masterpiece of American cinema, The Butler provides the most eye-opening peek into the actual reality of domesticity inside the White House the world has ever seen. Yes, real human people do live inside of it–and those people eat breakfast, they depend on coffee, they greet houseguests, they like sweets, they sleep, they use the toilet, they play with their children, they grieve their assassinated husbands, they bow down to the women they married. Forasmuch as it is a center of national interdiction, global strategy, and unforgettably tense decision-making as depicted in both commercial thrillers and classic films, The White House is–above all–the primary resident of the First Family of America. Given the renewed interest in politics Barack Obama’s elections have gifted a previously disillusioned and apathetic national public, The Butler delivers on the pulse of popular culture with its insightful relaxation from politics and historical events. The Butler is not a political expose or workbook on the operations of world leaders. It is a story of families, lives, men, women, labor and love. It is here where the content of the story ascends higher than the color of the characters’ skin.
On my way out of the theater the last time, during the customary rush to the bathroom all women make, I ran into a mother with her daughter and I screamed “I loved it!” when she asked me “What did you think of this film?” She was ecstatic at the story we had just witnessed, a true film in nearly every sense of the word: be it romance, adventure, biography, thriller or history. She shared she saw the film as an assignment from her English professor, a fact which warmed my heart as an English teacher and scholar. Although she was to only write a one-page response (I would have assigned 3), she had no idea where to begin her thoughts. The Butler is that rich. It is like a Disney film, with its fair share of real-life darkness but intended for the whole family and even classrooms to see.
It is not perfect, as the Presidents’ inner quandaries could be explored in much greater depth; their cerebral pressures are appropriately sacrificed, down to the notorious portrayals of Eisenhower calmly painting in a moment of silence or Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber) fighting with his staff while on the toilet. But to go deeper than those surface characteristics of our nation’s presidents is a task for other films, and audiences can choose from a multitude of biopics or political films to delve deeper into them. The Butler holds tight its focus on slow, painstaking development of the civilian characters’ lesser-portrayed lives, love stories, crises, friendships and familial bonds. We never learn exactly what Gaines’ son experienced in Vietnam, and if it provided him the solace he went searching for; we only learn he has no time to write about it and he will not benefit from the time. But again, there are a plethora of films to turn to for such introspection into that nightmare of world history as experienced by black men. However, as the end of just another night at the movies and a means to revere the unique and extraordinary experience of being black in the (supposedly) freest country in the world, The Butler is about as close to perfect as we can ever hope to see.