BY ERIN TORRANCE
Released on home video just this past week, Lee Daniels’ The Butler seems to have been snubbed by many this awards season despite it being a box office success when it hit the screens in August. But if you happened to miss it in theatres, you need to go rent it now.
Inspired by the true story of Eugene Allen, The Butler follows Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a father of two who began life in the cotton fields, being taken in as a house slave by the lady of the house after his mother was raped and driven to insanity and his father was shot dead for approaching the white man responsible. Cecil eventually gains his freedom and starts a life as a hotel servant, later being recommended for a position at a prestigious hotel in Washington, D.C., where he unknowingly gains the attention of White House management and is hired on as a butler to the President.
However, The Butler doesn’t just tell the incredible story of one slave-turned-White House-butler; it also chronicles the civil rights movement through two very different and important perspectives while bringing into question the topic of racial identity. (Clearly, this movie has a lot of layers.) Let me attempt to explain.
Serving eight presidents during his 34-year tenure, Cecil becomes a behind-the-scenes proponent of civil rights, particularly through his close relationship with each of the presidents. As a butler, Cecil is expected to conform to certain traits (e.g. be polite, speak when spoken to, anticipate the needs of those you’re serving, etc.) and conform to what may be considered “white behaviour.” Through his actions and demeanour as a White House butler, Cecil subverts African American stereotypes and injustices from within the system.
Cecil’s passive, subversive approach to the social revolution contrasts strongly with his son Louis (David Oyelowo) and his more aggressive, frontline approach through demonstrations that become increasingly more violent. In comparison to his father, Louis is fighting stereotypes and injustices by resisting and condemning the system from the outside.
This film has faced a lot of criticism due to its departure from some of the details of Allen’s life. Cecil’s loss of his parents is said to have been added for cinematic appeal (that’s partially the case), but these events also add further depth to the story and offer a more generalized view of the atrocities African Americans experienced at that time. As well, the film has Cecil father two sons, one who fights in the Vietnam war and one who makes the civil rights movement his life’s mission. while Allen had just one son, who neither fought in Vietnam nor was a radical political activist. However, it’s the contrast between Cecil and Louis that lends such depth and compelling contrast to this film and it’s unique portrayal of the American civil rights movement. We suddenly see how two generations’ approaches to social revolution are shaped by so many factors—freedom, income, education, geography, family—and how they can both break down and strengthen the bonds between family as well.
Studying social history in university, I thought I had a comprehensive understanding of this era of American history. But this film proved that wrong. After seeing the scene with the Freedom Bus being stopped and violently attacked, something suddenly clicked; I was terrified, horrified and changed. I had read it all before, but I didn’t feel it until that moment.
The only reason I’m rating this film an “A” instead of an “A+” is because while Oprah Winfrey’s role as Gloria Gaines has been applauded by many, I felt it was the only flat performance in this film. She showed emotion, but it wasn’t convincing.
Overall, the film’s tagline is perfect: “One quiet voice can ignite a revolution.” To see how much one man can change—and how much a culture can change—in just one lifetime (from slavery to Obama) is inspiring. Lee Daniels’ The Butler is inspiring.