The Ultimate Political Insider:
The Butler tells the story of a Black butler who served 8 presidents
By Lottie L. Joiner
Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” opens with a scene of a lynching: two young Black men strung from a pole. It is unnerving indeed. Minutes later the movie cuts to a Southern plantation, where a young Cecil Gaines sees his sharecropper father murdered in cold blood, shot in the head for protecting his wife. The traumatized youth is taken into the “big house” where he is taught to serve. He learns an important lesson early on — work hard, be invisible.
This is the backdrop against which Gaines makes his way to Washington, D.C., and eventually becomes a butler in the White House. Daniels’ fourth directorial effort chronicles Gaines’ life during some of the most tumultuous times in American history. The movie is loosely based on the real life story of Eugene Allen, profiled in a Washington Post article by journalist Wil Haygood. Allen served eight presidents over three decades, from Truman to Reagan.
“He heard the conversations, took the phone calls. He saw it all,” said Haygood, who also wrote a book about the butler. “But he could leave the most powerful address in the nation, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., drive an hour into Virginia and not be able to use a public restroom because of the color of his skin.”
As events unfold, Gaines, played by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and their two sons wrestle with the outside influences of racism and discrimination that have permeated their home.
Gaines has a front row seat to history as various presidents struggle with one of the most contentious issues of the era: the battle for full civil and human rights. The dramatic highlights include Eisenhower’s predicament involving the Little Rock Nine, Kennedy’s outrage at fire hoses and attack dogs used against children in Birmingham, Nixon’s choice in Vietnam and Reagan’s decision on apartheid. It is the butler whom they all confide in.
“This is a movie about a man in the shadows,” Haygood said. “It’s not about the presidents. It’s about the last man out the door at night at the White House, the butler.”
The film also examines the generational split within the Civil Rights Movement — the strained relationship between a father and son, the clash between the old guard and the new breed. Gaines is the ultimate political insider but by virtue of his role in the White House, he is forced to be apolitical. He is instructed to: “hear nothing, say nothing, only serve.” He moves quietly, serving diligently and with dignity. It’s his son Louis (David Oyelowo), however, who represents the change that is taking place in America. He embodies the Civil Rights Movement — participating in lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides and marches in Birmingham. We find Louis in the Lorraine Motel with Dr. Martin Luther King while Gaines dutifully waits on an angry Lyndon Johnson. And while Gaines tries to change minds through his strong work ethic, Louis confronts hate face-to-face as a member of the Black Panther Party.
The pull between these two forces forms the crux of the film. Though both men are working toward the same goal — equality and justice — their approaches are different.
“The Butler” was filmed in various places — a plantation in New Orleans, a church once used for the Underground Railroad and even on a bridge where Blacks were lynched. But Daniels said the most difficult scene to film was the Klan’s firebombing of a Freedom Rider bus. The director was stuck on the bus and for a millisecond, he said, he could feel the fear of those young activists.
“I realized these kids were heroes. This was beyond a movie to me,” Daniels said to a group of Black journalists. “I can die for my kids. I can take a bullet for my kids. But I don’t know if I could die for a cause.”
The Freedom Riders and those who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, Daniels noted, risked their lives “for the right to vote, to sit at a table.”
In this age of Trayvon Martin, few young people are familiar with the history of the movement. Ironically, “The Butler” is being released just a few weeks before the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and during a season of other pivotal civil rights moments: the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Medgar Evers, the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham Children’s March and the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
“My 17-year-old son is being followed and doesn’t know why,” Daniels told Oprah Winfrey when explaining why he wanted to direct “The Butler.” “They [youth today] know more about Anne Frank than the Civil Rights Movement.”
By the end of the movie, father and son find common ground in the anti-apartheid movement and work together to get the first Black president elected. The real butler, Mr. Allen, who died in 2010, received a VIP invitation to President Obama’s inauguration. Ironically, out of all the years he worked at the White House, it was the first time he had ever been invited to a presidential inauguration. His wife of 65 years died the day before Obama was elected and didn’t get to see the nation’s first Black president. Allen was determined, Haygood said, to witness Obama take the oath of office for the both of them.
“He never thought that he’d live to see a moment like that,” Haygood noted. “He was there watching that swearing-in for his beloved wife who had encouraged him to tell me their story.”
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