“The Butler,” starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, is a walk through America’s late 20th century civil rights history and the feelings of invisibility and indignation that have shaped how black Americans see their lives.
The story is narrated by Cecil Gaines, a character based on an actual butler who worked in the White House, serving presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan.
Every day for the bulk of his long life, Gaines puts on white gloves and goes to work, where he is a fly on the wall within the halls of power.
“You must neither be seen, nor heard,” he is told.
The film makes the point that African-Americans have historically been invisible. Gaines is in the room while the presidents are making momentous decisions that will impact the people he knows and loves. For instance, Gaines is serving coffee and tea while President Eisenhower discusses integrating the school at Little Rock and President Johnson strategizes about pushing through a civil rights bill.
Cecil Gaines is a dignified man. He complains that he is paid less than white butlers, but when his complaint is ignored there is no possibility that he can protest by leaving his job. He rarely speaks his mind, even when directly questioned by white superiors. Yet Gaines is also a hero. His dignity in the face of oppression is his argument against prejudice.
Gaines’ life of noble and patriotic restraint is contrasted with the life of his oldest son, Louis, a political firebrand. The father and son come together after years of conflict, sharing an epiphany that although Cecil Gaines may have at times been too willing to smile in the face of oppression, and Louis Gaines has been too militant, both perseverance and indignation have value.
One of the film’s most powerful moments comes when “The Butler” treats the black experience under President Reagan. Reagan is portrayed as an affable man who personally is nondiscriminatory. The Reagans happily honor Gaines’ retirement by inviting him and his family to a statehouse dinner.
But, finally, Gaines — like most black Americans — cannot approve of a president so insensitive to systemic racism abroad that he will not take a stand against apartheid in South Africa or against discrimination at home.
“The Butler” fills in the gaps in our mutual social, moral and political history. It’s is a fitting movie for our era, where the lack of what President Obama called a shared context between the races remains a major barrier to shared sympathies.
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and journalist living in Santa Fe, N.M. He can be reached at pmproj [at] progressive [dot] org.
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