Is 2013 shaping up to the best year in an awful long time for serious movies about black history? We got an excellent treatment of the Jackie Robinson story last spring in 42, and a Nelson Mandela biopic is due for release this fall. Right now Lee Daniels’ The Butler is in theatres, and while the movie isn’t perfect, it goes a long way toward helping to fill the infotainment gap on the subject of the Civil Rights movement.
Perhaps this insider tale of America’s violent transition from a land where racism is officially sanctioned to one where a black man could be elected president will prove most stirring to those who watched those same news clips day by day that are used in the film to establish the passage of time. But it would be nice if younger viewers would also take advantage of this admittedly oversimplified lesson in a most crucial passage in the history of human rights.
Based loosely on a Washington Post article titled “A Butler Well-Served by this Election,” The Butler changes the name of its protagonist and conflates numerous characters for purposes of narrative shorthand as it tells the tale of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a black man who keeps his counsel through tumultuous times while serving eight presidents as a highly professional White House butler. Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong assign Gaines a fictional son named Louis (David Oyelowo) who gets swept up into the Freedom Riders while attending Fisk University, thus conveniently giving the family a heart-tugging personal link to the Civil Rights struggles in the South throughout the era.
The term “Uncle Tom” is never used in the movie, but young Louis is clearly embarrassed by what he perceives as his father’s passivity in the face of Washington’s complicity in the suppression of black people. As he rises through the movement, the son manages to participate personally in (and survive) lunch-counter sit-ins, beatings, bus bombings, street protests in Birmingham, Selma’s Bloody Sunday and even strategy sessions with Dr. Martin Luther King (Nelsan Ellis). The latter warns Louis not to underestimate the contributions of apparently subservient men like his father, who, he says, undermine white people’s negative stereotypes of black people by working hard and with dignity in the role of servants.