Movie Review of Lee Daniels’ The Butler
By Rev. Sandy Jones
Lee Daniels’ The Butler was inspired by the true story of Eugene Allen, who worked his way up from being a childhood plantation slave to the highest level of butler in the White House where he served 8 presidents in a career that lasted for 34 years, eventually retiring in 1986. The movie was not the “true” story of his life but rather an amalgamation tracing the dramatic changes that swept American society during this time, from the civil rights movement to Vietnam and beyond and how those changes affected this man’s life and family.
Forest Whitaker is “The Butler,” Cecil Gaines; Oprah Winfrey is his wife Gloria; and David Oyelowo is their son Louis. The film tells the story of the parallel, yet connected lives of father and son. After his father’s death, Cecil Gaines begins his “career” as a domestic worker in the plantation house where his family sharecropped. He takes great pride in his work. After landing the job at the White House, Cecil is present at pivotal moments in American history, and the presidents seek his input, especially on matters of civil rights and race.
While Cecil doesn’t seem to have much interest in civil rights, his son Louis is eager to be involved. Louis decides to attend Fisk University in Nashville rather than Howard University in the nation’s capital in order to be close to and involved in the civil rights movement. Cecil and Louis are engaged in a classic generational conflict. The father doesn’t understand the son, and the son doesn’t understand the father.
The opening scenes of the movie take place during Cecil’s childhood while he and his family are slaves on a plantation. In fact the opening scene of the movie shows two men who have been lynched facing one another hanging from a tree. The next scene takes us to a southern plantation where the family is working in the field, mother, father and son, (Cecil as a small child). Cecil witnesses the son of the plantation rape his mother and then kill his father leaving Cecil to be raised as a house servant. The silver lining is that his training as a domestic servant gives him the skills he needs for the butler position at the White House years later.
From the minute this movie opened through the scenes of racial violence during the 60’s I was transported to a place somewhere between shame and profound sadness. And I cried. A friend of mine asked me why I cried. She wanted to know if I cried from a sense of guilt. And I have to say I think I did cry from a sense of guilt. I grew up in a very integrated part of Southern California – in fact in my high school I was part of the minority. Honestly, until I moved to the south, as an adult, I had no idea the depth of what had gone on during the civil rights movement. I know we studied it in school but it never had much of an impact on me. It was happening in a place that was far removed from where I was. I was completely oblivious to what was going on. The guilt comes from seeing and learning about this with new eyes and knowing that I ignored, failed to see, didn’t care, and/or lived in a non-realistic bubble while people who would have been my friends (had I known them) were being treated so badly and in many cases even murdered. So maybe it is that sense of “white guilt” that I had an option to “not know” what was going on and I quietly, happily lived with that privilege.
This is a movie that brings to life so many pivotal events in the civil rights movement. I recommend seeing it and using it to open family and community conversation. There are positive role models here that exemplify two archetypal figures in African-American history; the hard-working black domestic and the civil rights activist who defies inequality with non-violent protest.
- Families can talk about American history and how it’s witnessed differently by Cecil and his son.
- Even though Lee Daniels’ The Butler is dedicated to those who worked in the civil rights movement, the protagonist is an apolitical butler. Why is his eyewitness account to history so compelling?
- What would you say the movie’s main message is about the civil rights movement? Which character are viewers meant to identify with the most?
- What did you learn about the civil rights movement, the history of segregation, or the way that various presidents dealt with race relations?
As in the Truth and Reconciliation process – we all have to learn and understand what went on and our role (Truth) so we can begin the Reconciliation.