The Butler gives a history lesson on the civil rights movement in America
By Ada Mbogu
Arts & Entertainment Editor
Anyone who has seen “The Help,” “Django Unchained,” and “The Color Purple,” can argue that African-Americans have endured a painful journey enticed with racism, repression and discrimination throughout American history. But in Lee Daniels’ new film “The Butler,” the fight for civil rights reaches a new angle, as one man’s story of personal growth, perseverance and courage transcends our view on race in America.
Drawing inspiration from Wil Haygood’s article in The Washington Post on the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American man who served as a butler in the White House for eight presidential administrations, Daniels correlates Allen’s experiences to that of the fictional Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), using historical anecdotes of slavery, Jim Crow and highlights of the civil rights movement.
Gaines’ story begins as a child on a Georgia cotton plantation where he learns the brutal reality of how blacks are treated in America. After loosing his parents (David Banner & Mariah Carey) to the claws of Jim Crow, Gaines paves his own path towards adulthood as he works as serving others at a local hotel, and then moves up to the big league, where he begins working as a butler at the White House.
Throughout his time at the White House, Gaines, like many African-Americans who want to survive White America, learned to turn a blind eye towards racial injustice and play two faces. Daniels does a good job illustrating the status quo by using historical anecdotes of past landmarks of the civil rights movement and the presidents who took steps to unmask the interface of race relations.
Although Allen began his career under President Harry Truman, Gaines’ career spans from Eisenhower to Reagan, when the civil rights movement gained momentous leverage. As Gaines accepts his new job at the White House, Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams) must make a decision on whether to send troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to desegregate public schools.
Under the Kennedy Administration, President John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), displays his compassion to African-Americans as coverage of black children, who were forcefully hosed down and bitten by dogs in Birmingham, Alabama became nationwide news, fueling his address to the people to end racial segregation in the South.
But Daniels didn’t just use the presidential administrations to illustrate the fight for civil rights. As Gaines and his family, wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and sons Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley), settle in as middle-class citizens living in a quiet neighborhood in Washington D.C., Daniels shifts the focal point to Louis who becomes engrossed in racial politics of the 1960s and the fight for equal justice for blacks.
After attending Fisk University in Tennessee, Louis, along with his girlfriend Carol (Yaya Alafia), sit at a segregated Woolworth lunch counter, on a bus with Freedom Riders, at Lorraine Motel moments before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated and at a Black Panther strategy meeting in Oakland. Showing symbolic moments in the movement, Daniels’ captures the raw emotion between father and son as Cecil angrily rejects Louis’ views on race in America and how we should go about standing up for justice.
Race relations is always a touchy subject to speak about, but what’s even more precarious is to capture the truth of the facts and emotions on film. While other films use theatrics, elephantine special effects and actors who can’t relate to the struggle, “The Butler” with it’s ensemble cast, organic cinematography and Daniels’ direction, weaves an intricate yet magnificent story of how race in America has transformed and people of all colors, cultures and backgrounds can coexist today.