The Butler

By Maike Newman

It’s Feb­ru­ary, African Amer­i­can His­to­ry Month in the U.S. So let’s look at a fab­u­lous film that depicts a young black man and his pow­er­ful, but emo­tion­al strug­gle from a share­crop­per on a cot­ton farm to an invis­i­ble but­ler in the White House who lives by the max­im: “You see noth­ing, you hear noth­ing: you only serve.”

View­ers will soon come to real­ize that all they have ever dealt with in school his­to­ry lessons con­cern­ing slav­ery and the Civ­il Rights move­ment in the Unit­ed States hard­ly revealed the true tor­ments of African Amer­i­cans. So now get ready to embark upon a tru­ly thought-pro­vok­ing time travel.

Cecil Gaines (For­est Whitak­er) grew up on a cot­ton farm as a sharecropper’s son in the 1920s. After his father (David Ban­ner) was killed and his moth­er (Mari­ah Carey) suf­fered from psy­cho­log­i­cal trau­ma, Cecil leaves the plan­ta­tion, desir­ing a life as a ‘house nig­ger.’ By fol­low­ing the phi­los­o­phy, “You must look through your eyes, see what it is that they want, see what it is they need, antic­i­pate, bring a smile to the eyes,” Cecil final­ly becomes a White House but­ler in the 1950s. Over the decades that fol­low, he serves sev­er­al U.S. Pres­i­dents and wit­ness­es Amer­i­can his­to­ry in the mak­ing. We are invit­ed to empathize with Cecil’s per­son­al bat­tle dur­ing the Civ­il Rights and Black Pow­er move­ments and their effects on both his fam­i­ly and the wider nation­al psy­che. Despite this strug­gle, Cecil remains loy­al to the White House and is respect­ed as a reli­able and dis­creet ser­vant. This per­son­al suc­cess, how­ev­er, comes at a cost, as his wife Glo­ria (Oprah Win­frey) slips into a bat­tle with lone­li­ness and alco­hol. Ulti­mate­ly, Cecil must face the ques­tion he finds hard­est of all: what means more to him, the love of his fam­i­ly or loy­al­ty to his masters?

Lee Daniels’ The But­ler is inspired by Will Haygood’s arti­cle in The Wash­ing­ton Post, “A But­ler Well Served by This Elec­tion.” The sto­ry told is based on the life of Eugene Allen and cap­tures the dif­fer­ent mind-sets of the younger and old­er gen­er­a­tions of the time. His­to­ri­ans have crit­i­cized the artis­tic license in the film, since Eugene Allen’s biog­ra­phy tells nei­ther of his moth­er being raped nor his father being mur­dered for try­ing to pro­tect her. The cin­e­mat­ic effect is to cast us back into the 20th cen­tu­ry and con­front us with some of the atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted against African Amer­i­cans in the not too dis­tant past. The film also con­veys a feel­ing for how dif­fi­cult it was for Cecil to accept that he could be some­thing more than sub­servient. For far too long, Cecil’s mantra remains: “Speak up and you die.” How­ev­er, unlike oth­er films on African Amer­i­can hard­ships, this one ends on a more pos­i­tive note. But watch for yourself.

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