African American history through a life of service: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

August 23, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in Lee Daniels' The Butler

Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in Lee Daniels’ The Butler

A guest post by Kevin C. Peterson

At the very center of Lee Daniels’ The Butler is the poignantly resonating reminder of the country’s enduring conversation about race–its many complicated tensions, variations, contradictions and resolutions.

The movie, which opened in Boston-area theaters last weekend, is a compelling meditation loosely based on the long career of Eugene Allen, a stoic Southern-born son of a murdered black sharecropper who eventually rose from a restaurant wait boy to the position of maitre d’ at the White House, serving in fine fashion 8 Presidents over 34 years and enduring the protracted pains that are associated with a man of his race and intelligence in a country determined to keep him invisible.

The Butler is based on a 2008 Washington Post article written by Wil Haygood, who formerly worked for the Boston Globe. It chronicles a remarkable swath of American history that highlights the Civil Rights era of the last century where countless citizens, including the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., made signal contributions to ending American apartheid and advancing domestic democracy.

The Butler spans Allen’s White House employment, beginning with President Dwight Eisenhower, who desegregated United States military bases, and ending with Ronald Reagan, who signed into law the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. Depicted in between are Allen’s (in the movie his name is Cecil Gaines) high hopes in President John F. Kennedy, his ambivalence toward President Lyndon Johnson, and a smoldering intolerance for Richard Nixon. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are barely mentioned. Through the course of this film, directed expertly by Lee Daniels, one feels the slow, inexorable move toward civic inclusion for which Allen and many other Americans yearned. The change is propelled at times by acts of Southern violence, the slow grind of the political legal system and the gradual melt of old customs weighted in racist mores.

Written and performed brilliantly by a cast of actors in their prime (see Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Vanessa Redgrave as a southern racist and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan), The Butler is an allegory of our post World War II domestic experience, mining the social fears and guilt within our national psyche.

Viewers are prompted to reflect on the rapid changes in our racial terrain over three generations, emerging from de facto racism to a civic culture that would elect the first American of African descent in 2008.

Forest Whitaker plays Allen skillfully. He will likely earn another Academy Award nomination (he won the best actor award in 2006 for his role as an African despot in the King of Scotland) and Oprah Winfrey, who plays Allen’s adulterous and dipsomaniac wife, Gloria, gives a performance that matches the superior effort she gave as Sethe in the movie Beloved. Their oldest son, Louis, portrayed by David Oyelowo, gives the movie added narrative depth, providing youthful angst and rebellious conflict toward his parents.

The Butler falters in only minor areas. It fails to offer fully rounded characters and also treats its audiences as if it is completely knowledgeable of the complex nuances of the modern civil rights movement.

Where it succeeds extraordinarily is in offering its take on universally human themes that transcend race. Its nuanced depiction of the strains between the father and son summons the tragic feelings of loss, alienation and separation. The often cold marital relationship between Allen and his wife is likewise told with realistic pathos and the tang of sacrifice, slow forgiveness, and then enduring love.

There is a political subtext in The Butler about hope and change, the same tagline branding that was reflected in the Barack Obama 2008 presidential campaign.

The Allens also possessed those sentiments as they bore witness to their evolving lives and ever shifting commitments to each other. Unfortunately, as Haygood reported in his 2008 story, Allen’s wife died just days before the Obama election, but he savored the victory nonetheless.

On a parallel level, change was reflected in Allen’s late reconciliation with his son, an act that gives this picture an overall fullness and resolve that nothing is really over until it’s over, including our enduring struggle over race.

Kevin PetersonKevin C. Peterson is founder and director of the New Democracy Coalition, an organization focused on civic literacy and electoral justice, based at the College for Public and Community Service at the University of Massachusetts Boston.  The views expressed are those of the author.

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