In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois writes about “double consciousness,” as the way that African Americans were forced to look at themselves through the eyes of others, staying aware of white society’s demands for their behavior, attitudes, etc. He describes the experience as having “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings.” Lee Daniels’ The Butler beautifully uses double consciousness to structure the story of a White House butler who served over the course of eight presidencies and witnessed the Civil Rights Movement unfold in both his professional and personal lives.
The film tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) from his childhood as a house servant in the deep south, basically orphaned by racial violence. Over the course of his work on a plantation and in a series of posh hotels, Gaines learns to be an excellent butler—attentive to needs, silent, classy. One of his early teachers tells him that he must see things through white people’s eyes and anticipate their needs. When Gaines gets a job working as a White House butler, tensions grow between him and his oldest son, Louis (Daivd Oyelowo), a smart, rebellious young man. Cecil views his work as a way to help the nation’s leaders as they make changes, while Louis is anxious for more direct and dramatic change. When Louis goes to college and becomes a Freedom Rider, repeatedly getting beaten and thrown in jail, Cecil fears that his son will get killed and doesn’t understand why he would throw away the chance to get an education just to sit in jail. Conversely, having lived with the benefit of his father’s hard work, an education, and relative safety, Louis doesn’t understand how his father can pride himself on serving rich white men. Cecil’s work is about keeping order; Louis’s is about stirring things up. As the story unfolds, The Butler portrays not only Cecil’s interactions with presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan at key moments in civil rights legislation, it also shows tensions and changing philosophies within the Civil Rights Movement itself. Through the father-son dynamic the film portrays different paths toward social change.
Although Whitaker and Oyelowo carry the bulk of the film, a talented ensemble cast brings the era to life. Oprah co-stars as Cecil’s wife, Gloria, who struggles with worry over Louis and Cecil. The presidents themselves play a surprisingly, but appropriately, small role in the story and are portrayed in snippets by Robin Williams (Eisenhower), John Cusack (Nixon), James Marsden (Kennedy), Liev Schriber (Johnson), and Alan Rickman (Reagan). Although each actor gives a pretty solid impersonation of a president, Alan Rickman’s Ronald Reagan is the only impressive performance. Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz co-star as the White House butlers who work closely with Cecil during the most turbulent years of his family life. Together they have a lot of chemistry that helps balance out moments when the film is hammering away at a point.
A tendency to be heavy-handed is really the only major weakness of The Butler. The film is beautifully acted, even if it’s hard to forget that you’re watching Robin Williams or John Cusack when they only have a cumulative two minutes to “become” an iconic historical figure. The story is structured in a way that invites the audience to think about the complicated intellectual and emotional perspectives on different approaches to social change. The film often suspends judgment on Cecil or Louis, leaving a space to think through their politics. Other moments, however, especially the ending, verge on sentimentality or hero worship. For example, the film features none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. assuring Louis of the value of black domestic workers as subversive figures. In another scene, Cecil is reading a bedtime story to Caroline Kennedy when he finds out the Freedom Bus was attacked. Nonetheless, The Butler mostly stays away from overly simple or patriotic historics and presents a moving civil rights story through one family’s saga and one man’s storied career. I rate The Butler 4/5 stars.
The Butler was written by Danny Strong based on “A Butler Well Served By This Election” by Will Haygood. It was directed by Lee Daniels and runs 132 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking.
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