PERHAPS IT WAS the way the movie had been advertised, or maybe I was simply prejudiced against spending two hours with Forrest Whitaker as Uncle Tom in the White House. At best, it seemed as though “The Butler” would simply be an exercise in mawkishness. Whatever. I was wrong. For all it’s faults, this is a well written, nicely executed, layered movie about the tension between compliance and resistance; between the private, intimate world where family takes precedence over all and a public, social world where a person must act on his conscience…in the public good.
Whitaker, as Cecil Gaines, is the eponymous butler in a movie that is the – surprisingly – gritty counterpoint to “Forrest Gump”. Both movies present a panorama of US history using the device of the ‘naive’ observer. But the history “The Butler” presents is not Gump’s happy box of chocolates, but the (ongoing) awful history of race relations in the US.
The movie begins as young Gaines witnesses the murder of his father. He has been killed for daring to resist the serial rape of his wife by a young White cotton planter. In an act of, perhaps guilt or contrition, the young, shocked child is removed from the field by the planter’s elderly White mother, Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave in this star-dense cast). Cecil escapes by becoming the “house nigger”.
In that opening scene, the story’s social, poilitical and human elements are set in motion. The act of resistance and the brutality of the reprisals that follow are recurring themes. Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer), the young White planter is a thuggish holdover from the typical slave owner. Freedom does not equal equality. But really, the movie suggests, Thomas’ behavior is no less abusive than the behavior of the State. And in the face of this history, “The Butler” suggests that there are two roads to follow: the private road of compliance and escape or the public road of resistance and engagement.
The house is the world of escape and the house negro, as he is referred to in more polite terms, rises through diligence, subservience and an ability to observe without being observed, right up to the White House.
Gaines, scarred by his past (the Black past of slavery and oppression) matures as a reserved and deeply conservative man. He remains aloof and neutral to the roiling turbulence of the America he lives in; an America of the KKK, Watts, inner-city riots, Martin Luther King and the rise of the Black Panthers. His passivity is counterpointed by dual forces of resistance: that of his son – a troubled, increasingly angry, increasingly politicized young man – and that of a series of courageous presidents, from Kennedy to Johnson, Nixon and even Reagan.
Like Annabeth Westfall at the beginning, their conscience and humanity wins out over an embedded, socialized sense of contempt of “the negro”.
Gaines resists the need to resist, to fight the injustice of an unjust society. This is the path taken by his son. But it is a path that so threatens the father’s sense of order that there can be no common ground between them. The result is banishment. English actor David Oyelowo is Louis Gaines, Cecil’s son – sent packing by an angry, confused, stern father.
Compliance and resistance cannot co-exist.
And having as a child, escaped the bloody reality of the world he lived in before, Gaines continues to flee reality for the ordered and protective cocoon of the private worlds of his home and the White House.
Despite decades of resistance, despite laws and State troopers, change is slow. Racism persists. So too for Cecil, change is painfully slow… until an epiphany of sorts occurs when he is at a State reception, not as butler, but as guest. He realizes finally that equality is tokenism. That his conservatism and restraint will never shift the status quo and that the peace he has sought for all his life is, like his presence at the dinner, a sham; mere tokenism.
Cecil’s story can easily be seen as a kind of cop out, the coward’s way. But the movie never editorializes against him. Whitaker gives his character a dignity and a deep sense of decency. He’s just an ordinary man, working hard in an unfair system to get ahead in life, to feed and protect his family, and his passivity is not so much a cop out as a very understandable and human response.
Equally understandable is his shift, as an old man, to the son’s side. Finally he understands and can empathize with the power of resistance. Father and son, compliance and resistance need each other. They can live together
Director Lee Daniels handles difficult material well. In a movie that could easily have been either strident or sentimental, he balances the two to give us a deeply human drama as well as a richly moving history lesson.
The list of Presidents served by Gaines starts with Eisenhower (Robin Williams) and at times the movie does feel like some sort of must-have “star vehicle” with James Marsden (Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (Johnson), Alan Rickman (Reagan) John Cusack (Nixon), Jane Fonda (Nancy Reagan), Maria Carey, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz and Oprah Winfrey (as Gaines’s wife). Always nice to have such a stellar bunch, but it’s distracting and often gives the delicate texture of the movie a sour note.
The movie ends on a hopeful note. Obama has just been elected. Equality at last. Equality at last. Well, we can only hope that the butler died before the killings in Ferguson. Equality is yet to come