The Butler

“If Forrest Gump was the white Hollywood version of US history, intersecting famous historical events with personal narrative, then The Butler is its demanding, subversive, powerful little brother”. LARA FERRIS reviews the latest Oscar contender.

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You hear nothing. You see nothing. You only serve.”

These are the instructions given to Cecil Gaines on his first day as a black butler in the White House. Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) is Cecil, the shadow in the room, the black boy born to cotton pickers who grew up to work for a succession of the most powerful men in the world. This extremely moving film, inspired by true events, tells the story of his life.

Whitaker’s velvet voice guides us smoothly through the major events of the Black Civil Rights Movement. He shines the shoes of Presidents Eisenhower to Reagan, silently serving the white man and bearing witness to the minutiae of the lives of the men who made the laws that changed African-American history.

The Butler is groundbreaking in showing the conflict that existed within the civil rights movement, and not just the conflict between black and white. Cecil stands for those who believe change comes from within the institution, little-by-little. Outside the marble floors of government, it is a different story. On the streets of Birmingham, at the Woolworths lunch counter in Greensboro, and on the Freedom Buses, black students and white sympathisers are mobilising, taking the fight to the racist heartland of America.

Cecil’s son Lewis, played admirably by David Oyewolo, is a young political activist at the heart of the protests who rejects the idea of institutional change from within. His story allows us to put a face to the accounts of protesters killed, wounded, and imprisoned in the fight for racial equality. Historically accurate distressing scenes of violence are used to chilling effect to show us their bravery and their struggle.

Holding the family, and the story, together is Gloria, Cecil’s wife and Lewis’ mother, a matriarchal powerhouse played with grit and determination by Oprah Winfrey. The family conflict that she tries to control echoes this political turmoil within the black community, and within America itself, where the boundaries of traditional society are crumbling away.

The story of these individual people, their past, their conviction political beliefs, and their absolute determination in doing the right thing, is ultimately what makes this film so powerfully moving. And this film does them complete justice. The acting is of very high quality, Danny Strong’s script superb, while Lee Daniels’ direction keeps tugging at our heartstrings, engaging our minds, and questioning our consciences.

If Forrest Gump was the white Hollywood version of US history, intersecting famous historical events with personal narrative, then The Butler is its demanding, subversive, powerful little brother: the black Hollywood tale of the twentieth century. We meet Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X, the Black Panthers. It is as if we are finally reading a black rather than a white history textbook. The White House staff ask repeatedly ‘what it is that blacks want,’ but this film makes it is blindingly obvious that the black community cannot be simplified: it is made up of hundreds of thousands of individual people, with different political beliefs, different sexual orientations, different musical tastes, different fashion senses. The whites in power up till then had never considered them as anything other than Black.

Americans always turn a blind eye to our own. We look out to the world and judge. We hear about the concentration camps, but these [slavery] camps went on for 200 years in America.” – Cecil Gaines, The Butler

The Butler gives a face and a name to the invisible black man who up until recently did not exist in white American consciousness. It tells a moving and ultimately hopeful story of oppression, resistance, and the capacity for change.