On the surface, The Butler might seem like an awfully conservative film. It certainly takes the form of one of those safe historical epics that Hollywood loves to put out around Oscar time – its rush through eighty years of history is a little reminiscent of the reactionary Forrest Gump. But as a movie that addresses race in America, it has a very low bar to reach to be a qualified success. In the last decade, Hollywood has leaned so far to the right on racial issues that The Butler, with its thoughtful, even-handed, and ultimately incrementally progressive approach to civil rights, is something of a miracle.
It’s a bit startling to consider how few movies have even been made about the civil rights movement. There was a small trend in the late 1980s and early 1990s, comprised of Mississippi Burning, The Long Walk Home, Ghosts of Mississippi, and, of course, Malcolm X, a powerful civil rights biopic that used up every ounce of goodwill Spike Lee had earned in Hollywood. Twenty years later, he has not made another big-budget film about the black American experience.
The election of Obama renewed Hollywood’s interest in that experience, but it was told almost exclusively through the conservative lens of the white savior character, a la Skeeter (Emma Stone) in The Help or Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) in The Blind Side, white characters who lift blacks out of poverty through their compassion. The heroes of these films are modern white people rectifying the racial problems of the past, which creates a happy, warm feeling in the audience. We walk out of the theater thinking that our racial problems have been solved, while events like the Trayvon Martin killing or Henry Louis Gates controversy reveal deep wounds in our society that remain open.
Even worse was this year’s 42, which ignored the civil rights movement that protested and fought for the integration of baseball. Instead, the film assigned all credit to Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), who hired Jackie Robinson to play the game, absorb the death threats and racial epithets he received on a daily basis, and “have the guts not to fight back.” It portrayed an antiquated view of the black experience, uniformly praising the suppression of black rage. It’s not that the film’s message was wrong – Robinson’s strength and restraint should be celebrated – but it’s the wrong one for our time. The problems that face the black community today are complex and require more serious scrutiny, but in this post-racial Obama era, we have had to settle for the white savior and the apolitical black man.
The Butler can be read as a measured and even-handed response to the timid conventions of modern-day racial filmmaking. It displays a deep understanding of the problems associated with films like 42 and The Blind Side by dramatizing the debate between the quiet, dignified approach to civil rights and more direct action. Representing the former approach is the butler himself. As a boy, Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker) watches as his mother is raped by a white Southerner and his father is killed for protesting it. From that experience, Cecil learns to keep quiet, a talent that comes in handy as a butler. In fact, he is hand-picked to work in the White House for his ability to avoid political conflict, and he is instructed there – as he was as a “house Negro” in a southern plantation – to “make the room feel invisible when [he’s] in it.” One of The Butler’s more revolutionary ideas is that the White House is just another plantation, and Cecil and his colleagues are slaves by another name, even in the 20th century.
Had the filmmakers stopped there – and simply created a reverent portrait of Cecil and his friendship with various presidents – The Butler would have fit snugly alongside 42 in this conservative, post-racial era. But director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong are committed to airing the criticism of this approach, too, and the central conflict they create illuminates divisions within the civil rights movement while laying the foundation for a rich domestic drama.
Half of the film focuses on Cecil’s life in the White House, but a surprisingly large amount of screentime is devoted to the journey of his son Louis (David Oyelowo), who starts as a sullen teenager, becomes involved in the protest movement in the South, joins and eventually leaves the Black Panthers, and ends up running for Congress in the 1980s. Conflict arises between the father, who has learned to stay out of politics, and the son, who is embarrassed at his father’s service.
What’s impressive about The Butler is how it holds both of these ideas aloft at once. In fact, it argues that the combination of the two approaches is what actually effected change. Cecil never talks politics with his bosses, but several presidents find out about his son’s experiences, and, through their safe, trustful relationships with the butler, are moved by them. Eisenhower (Robin Williams) asks Cecil if his children go to an all-black school in the days before he orders the National Guard to integrate schools in Alabama. Kennedy (James Marsden) tells Cecil that learning of his son’s experiences have “changed his heart” before he gives his landmark address on civil rights. Even Reagan (Alan Rickman) admits to him that he has often worried he is “on the wrong side of the civil rights issue.”
Although the worst failures of each president on racial issues are go largely unmentioned, The Butler ultimately rejects their world and sides with the activists. In the final reel, Cecil quits his job at the White House and joins his son at a protest in front of the South African embassy. He also finally lifts his head and asks his boss to pay the black service employees at the White House as much as the whites, an issue he had only tiptoed around in the past. The message is clear: while Cecil’s quiet dignity played an important role in the movement, its time has passed. Direct, non-violent action is what is needed now.
Which leads the film to the present day when Cecil becomes involved in the candidacy of Barack Obama. Linking Cecil to Obama may simply have been an effort to make this story relevant to the present day, but, by doing so, the filmmakers also make a subtle and thought-provoking defense of the Obama presidency.
Although Obama is famously aware of the meaning of his election in the context of the civil rights struggle, he has been criticized from the left for not taking enough action on those issues that disproportionately affect minority communities: health care disparity, economic inequality, and the War on Drugs, for example. The final linking of Cecil to Obama draws connections between the two figures – as if Obama is “the butler” of U.S. presidents. As president, he has largely avoided addressing the underlying issues facing the black community, but he has positively subverted racist stereotypes by making a broad swath of Americans comfortable with a black national leader. Just like Cecil. Perhaps in due time, his approach will seem antiquated, and the leftists who criticize him today will be proved correct. Maybe one day, we will have a black president who does not shy away from identifying and rectifying the inherent racial bias in our domestic policy.
But if The Butler is correct, it might take that long for the Obama presidency to be fully appreciated within the context of history. Even just as a film, it should be praised for asking the difficult questions about race in an era in which Hollywood – and the rest of us – mostly avoid them.