A Black Man’s Legacy in The White House, in History
The fact that Lee Daniels’ The Butler begins with imagery of two lynched black men and soon after a scene involving rape and gunshot death is something genuinely rewarding. Not in the acts themselves of course, but because they’re there at all. In a film that spans ninety years and hits the paramount events of the Civil Rights Movement, glossing over subject material is often a requirement to record the broad brushstrokes of an entire life and history of social change. But Lee Daniels likes some punch and some truth in his stories as much as he likes burnishing them.
This particular story, sometimes heavy-handed but always reverential, is mostly about character Cecil Gaines, based off the real man Eugene Allen, the head White House butler who served eight presidential terms. The rape and gunshot death mentioned above happened to his mother and father, respectively, in the cotton fields of Macon, Georgia in 1926 while Cecil was just a boy. It is the odd trigger point for his plantation matriarch (played by Vanessa Regrave) to pick him up, wipe his tears, and order him inside for the rest of his life. Offering Cecil a butler job is at once a superficial apology for a brutal dose of real life (or death) and the opportunity to escape the shackles of hot sun calloused abuse while establishing a viable future considering the color of his skin.
Maybe he doesn’t enjoy that work, or maybe he just enjoys the quiet dignity of being invisible in a room laying down trays of tea and sandwiches. The question of whether he likes what he does is not brought up as much as what it provides him and his eventual family. I doubt he has passion for slipping on black tie and white gloves, but not many black people throughout most of the 20th century had the luxury of enjoying their jobs, their causes, or their duties. What The Butler chooses to emphasize is a family as a microcosm embodying the cries and joys so many were forced to endure.
Cecil Gaines, embodied by the immersive Forest Whitaker, harnessed his craft in Washington DC’s Hotel Excelsior before his big-league promotion. There he learned to become a man of no opinion, providing affirmation for any snobby elites questioning, and maybe hoping to provoke, Cecil’s system of belief. “Are you political?” one of the White House butlers asks him before taking his position amongst the five other butlers, numerous maids, and cooks. Cecil, now aged into a man, can assuredly claim that he is not political. It’s a trademark, like his meticulous food preparation and unreactive gestures, that both inspires and discourages his fellow working brethren, most notably played by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz. It’s there where Cecil learns the cognitive dissonance between entering the Oval Office stern and muted, and returning to the kitchen unguarded.
He calls it their “Two Faces” and it becomes the apt and overt metaphor to explore the film’s exclamatory theme. Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo), the parallel story in this episodic journey, goes to college in Tennessee against his parent’s will, enamored with more front line activism than his father’s trade within the Civil Rights movement. A slight derivative of Forrest Gump, Louis happens to be at the fundamental first sit-in, aboard the firebombed freedom rider bus, and later sits in the motel bedroom with Martin Luther King Jr. before he is assassinated. Is it cheesy? Sure. But I don’t find it bothersome in the context of explaining two competing ideologies.
During the sit-in, in which Louis and his other classmates have been thoroughly trained to endure, the white hatred in the diner escalates to humiliation in degrading forms. Ketchup is squirted, coffee is flung, and pepper is thrown into protester’s faces. Daniels parallel cuts between this to Cecil, slowly and fluidly placing silverware onto the table in preparation for the president’s dinner. His son is refused a meal at one end of the counter and food is used as a messy fear tactic and weapon. Cecil’s clean and neat preparation of food is his way of life. The juxtaposition is effective.
What’s more effective is Daniels, along with screenwriter Danny Strong, giving the Gaines household inflections of humanity beneath their veneers of impassioned servitude, martyrdom, or in the case of Cecil’s wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), sobriety. With Cecil gone day and night, she turns to alcohol as a companion to fill a void deep with uncertainties regarding Louis’s frequent jail visits, his brushes with death, and her own unfulfilled libido. Those tempt primal passions from the likes of a toothless scab and neighbor played Terrence Howard. Winfrey, even in her celebrity, grounds her fame and becomes this melodramatically pained and loving character.
Louis later joins the Black Panthers, but believes more in its community-building ethos than its violent fist pumping power. His girlfriend, who has evolved with the look and feel of the 1970s, is ready to kill if it means justice. In one of the more microcosmic scenes, Louis returns home with his black beret and directly confronts his father’s line of work. His mother digresses the disagreement by speaking about recently seeing In The Heat of The Night starring Sidney Poitier, but the argument only escalates from there.
“One is the man dedicated to the improvement of the Negro image in general and to rectifying the wrongs perpetrated against black women in particular. The other is the Negro movie star that all white America loves,” wrote New York Times critic Clifford Mason about Poitier in the film. Louis sees the actor as fulfilling the white man’s perspective of what a black man should be. Cecil sees him like himself. “Gradualism may have some value in politics. But in art it just represents a stale, hackneyed period, to be forgotten as soon as we can get on to the real work at hand,” Mason continues. He likely does not champion Oscar Wilde’s belief that “Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.”
Whitaker meanwhile commands the scene and rages, “Poitier won an Oscar!” At that point, as Louis begins his rebuttal, the audience at my screening began chuckling at Whitaker’s face on which Daniels chooses to maintain focus. He wears this listening grin but you know he’s not amused, ready to snap in an instant. It’s the kind of subtlety that makes you appreciate his presence and ability. That even in the pretentious warm, gold, glossy glow of the house, we’re witnessing an honest and raw moment between a father and son. As Martin Luther King Jr. eventually explains to Louis, the black help “were not subservient, they were subversive.” Both men here are defending their beliefs and simultaneously working to enact their own visions of social change. The trouble of course is the two rarely coexist.
Was it enough to just make an appearance on screen with prolific white actors? Like many other minorities aiming to find the same equality and dignity in movies, what was the price of their stereotypical representations? From the Foxy Browns of Blaxploitation to Spike Lee’s existential questioning in Do The Right Thing, it becomes easy to forget the older generational paving, even easier to condemn their cookie cutter caricatures. But Daniels never denounces one mentality over another because in retrospect, the movement toward social equality was a constant friction-heavy amalgam of the two.
In fact, Daniels emphasizes this dynamic idea in his fictionalized encounters between Cecil and his long list of presidents served. Cecil invoked the sympathies of Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams) and John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) admitting that his son had taken part in those freedom rides on the television, that his son was in constant danger for doing legal things in this country. Other cameos include Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson stroking his beagles and sitting openly on the pot, John Cusack as the bumbling hardhead Nixon, and Alan Rickman embodying Ronald Reagan struggling to grasp the political strife in South Africa. They toggle between authentic affect and silliness.
Daniels has mentioned that he is not a director that will continue to solely champion the black perspective in his films. With the recent Precious and The Paperboy to his name, it’s an understandable statement of intent. But in this film his partial lens is refreshing. Upon Cecil’s retirement, Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda) invites he and Gloria as guests to a dinner function. As they walk in, the camera hovers behind their shoulders looking out into the grand plaza as they are welcomed. At that point, Daniels is as much cognizant of Cecil’s literal entrance as he is its significance for the entire black staff and members of the Civil Rights Movement to which the film is dedicated. The same tactic is used years later, when Cecil turns the corner in the White House to meet president Barack Obama for the first time.
In different hands, or in a different time, we might have viewed the couple from the front, subtly pitting the audience to occupy the perspective of the numerous white guests. In this sweeping and far-reaching film dignifying this man’s long tenured life, that we don’t share that view is at once a small and grand achievement.