For the first two hours, I was convinced this movie would be an utter disappointment. But somehow with about ten minutes left, writer Danny Strong managed to surprise me. He proved that a film about race in the 21st century could still be subversive and disarm the expectations of its audience.
The Butler is partly a biography of Cecil Gaines, played with conviction by Forest Whitaker, an African-American who served as White House butler from the 1950s to the 1980s. The sheer span of years makes for a tedious, Forrest Gump-like tour of 20th century American history, stopping at all the expected landmarks: the Civil Rights Act, JFK’s assassination, Nixon’s resignation. We get to see John Cusack wear a fake nose and Alan Rickman as a Republican.
Yet none of the U.S. presidents are portrayed with the depth these actors are capable of. There doesn’t appear to be any artistic vision in how these snippets of American history are chosen for the screen. It all feels like the sort of video an overburdened teacher would put on to occupy her misbehaved class while attempting to avoid a nervous breakdown.
Against this backdrop, we’re shown Cecil’s turbulent home life, complete with an alcoholic wife, played forcefully by Oprah Winfrey, but without much purpose.
The only real bridge between the two parallel narratives is Cecil’s son, Louis. He joins the Freedom Riders at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. Disillusioned by the ineffectiveness of non-violent protest, he then becomes a member of the radical Black Panther Party. Perhaps The Butler’s most affecting scene comes when Cecil is serving coffee to President Nixon and overhears the FBI’s plan to “gut those sons of bitches.” He knows his son’s life is at risk, but feels totally helpless.
Throughout most of the movie, it seems like we’re meant to side with Cecil and scorn the ingratitude of his son. Louis squanders his father’s hard-earned money, drops out of university, and worst of all insults Cecil’s favourite president!
This is where The Butler takes an unexpected turn. It’s 1986 and President Ronald Reagan is so impressed with Cecil’s work that he’s invited to attend a state dinner. Amongst the most powerful people in the world, however, Cecil can’t help but feel like an unwitting a poster boy for the status quo.
Soon after, Reagan refuses to sign a law that would enforce sanctions against apartheid in South Africa, and Cecil quits his job. We then see him joined in protest with Louis, who’s managed to earn a Master’s in Politics and be elected to Congress.
It’s easy for a predominantly white, middle-class audience to celebrate Cecil Gaines, the hard-working, humble butler who makes a good life for his family without causing too much fuss. But instead of providing easy answers The Butler leaves us with uncomfortable questions. It forces us to ask ourselves whether Cecil’s life helped to advance race relations or stagnate progress.
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