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‘The Butler’ captures the schism within black families over civil rights

Marita Golden | 8/23/2013, 6 a.m.
Forest Whitaker on the set of The Butler with Cuba Gooding Jr. The star-studded cast also includes Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, John Cusack, Jane Fonda and Robin Williams. Courtesy of Lee Daniels' The Butler

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Courtesy of Lee Daniels' The Butler

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey).

This has been a long, hot summer, dominated in part by the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. The trial, which became a media spectacle, was at its heart the story of the unfulfilled search for justice. The verdict in that case broke millions of Americans’ hearts and inspired the slogan: “We are all Trayvon.”

Now, as the summer nears its conclusion and we await the 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington, comes Lee Daniels’ The Butler, in its own way a story of the search for justice. This time the quest is mirrored in the life and work of a black man who served presidents and whose job was to “hear nothing, say nothing, only serve.”

If we are all Trayvon Martin, and I believe that we all are, then this complex and deeply satisfying film informs us that we are all also Cecil Gaines, the fictional stand-in for Eugene Allen, a White House butler who served eight presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. The film, inspired by the profile of Allen by Washington Post writer and acclaimed biographer Wil Haygood, is much more than the witness-to-history drama that the trailers seem to promise. Heading the stellar cast is Oprah Winfrey, acting in a rather limited role that she enlarges with a newfound cinematic confidence, and Forest Whitaker, giving a performance that is majestic, terrifyingly beautiful and his best in years. 

One of the major contributions of this film is its charged and realistic dramatization of the little-discussed and rarely acknowledged schisms within black families over the strategies of the Civil Rights Movement and later the Black Power Movement. David Oyelowo plays Louis, Gaines’ sensitive, ever-questioning son, whom we first meet as a teenager who wants to attend a demonstration in response to the death of Emmett Till.

The elder Gaines, who managed to escape the South with his life after witnessing the murder of his father by a white man, has — through more hard work than his son could ever imagine — attempted to create a bulwark against the intrusion of that legacy. Having been warned by the black maître d’ who hires him that “there is no tolerance for politics in the White House,” Cecil stamps out his son’s initial spark of activism.

Yet Louis goes on to attend college at Fisk in Tennessee, where he joins the Freedom Riders, gets arrested throughout the South while protesting segregation and ultimately joins the Black Panther Party, which he later leaves, disillusioned by the party’s violent rhetoric and actions. The film brilliantly captures the feel, sound and tenor of those explosive years that changed so much for African Americans, women and other long-marginalized groups.

The sense that the world was teetering on the edge of destruction even as it was experiencing earth-shattering social and political change is the engine that drives those portions of the film, which shows with great poignancy the political education of both father and son. In the Gaines family, as was the case in many black families, arguments over civil rights and the best ways to achieve equality resulted in silence, rejection and disengagement.