Directed by Lee Daniels (The Weinstein Company, 2013)
Inspired by the true story of a black butler who served seven presidents, director Lee Daniels has fashioned a sprawling, overcrowded, and often predictable Hollywood epic. The Butler offers a meteoric dash through the history of the civil rights struggle while still hitting enough emotional targets to leave the audience dazzled and occasionally stunned.
When Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) arrives at the White House during the Eisenhower administration, he already bears the scars of racial violence and segregation, having learned the craft of waiting on white folks as a way of protecting and providing for his family. In the following decades Cecil is often a firsthand but noticeably silent witness to the civil rights revolution, though he does not emulate the politicians or activists in the center ring. Instead, he prefers hard work and invisibility as his way of dealing with racism.
Cecil’s commitment to his job at the White House is not without cost. His wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) feels abandoned by his obsession with “that other house,” and eventually his son Louis (David Oyelowo) sees Cecil as an Uncle Tom indentured to the white leaders he serves. Gloria seeks some solace in a bottle and a handsome neighbor, while Louis finds himself increasingly drawn to a political and militant activism that frightens and disturbs his father.
The Butler serves as a Hollywood history lesson, providing a refresher course for those who, in Barack Obama’s second term, perhaps have forgotten the horror of America’s long winter of slavery and segregation and the courage of the generations that waged the civil rights movement. In spite of what the Supreme Court wrote when it gutted the Voting Rights Act this year, racism is not dead in America. Those who forget the history presented in The Butler are doomed to repeat it.
This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 10, page 42).