Editor’s note: “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” has been in theaters for several weeks now, but it continues to spark debate about its perspective on a seismic period in African American history. We asked a leading scholar of the civil rights movement, Dr. Peniel E. Joseph, to see the movie and share his thoughts. Joseph is a professor at Tufts University whose books include “Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America” and “Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Obama.”
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is, by any conventional measure, a rarity: a major Hollywood film production that focuses on African American history by using a largely black cast to tell the story. And this is not just any story. The film, which stars Forrest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, details a sort of counter-narrative of the civil rights era. It begins during the racially oppressive Eisenhower era and proceeds through the civil rights movement’s heroic period in the early 1960s through the tumultuous and revolutionary Black Power struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s all the way to Barack Obama’s watershed 2008 election.
The main narrative begins in 1957 with Cecil Gaines happily married with two kids and working at a fancy hotel. He’s soon offered a job as White House butler and is ecstatic at his good fortune. But tensions and anxieties bubble beneath the surface of his picturesque family life, as his oldest son Lewis chafes at his father’s accommodation.
“The Butler” situates the Gaines’ family life against the backdrop of the nation’s unfolding civil rights revolution. To be sure, what follows bares the uneven hit-or-miss quality of most historically driven cinema. The movie’s depiction of the Black Panthers falls largely flat, the victim of being overwhelmed by the group’s iconography at the expense of a three dimensional characterization of young people who were self-identified revolutionaries.
The Panthers are portrayed more as a group of sloganeering radicals (with large, over the top afros) rather than perhaps the most important group of revolutionaries America has ever produced. “Night Catches Us,” an overlooked independent gem that tells the story of Black Panthers in Philadelphia in the mid 1970s, remains the best cinematic depiction of this organization.
Yet “The Butler” is precisely valuable for the large swaths of history that it gets right. The film’s observant, subtle narration of the civil rights movement’s heroic period, especially the lunch counter sit-in movement and Freedom Rides, are pitch perfect. In doing so, it offers a powerful cinematic corrective to past failures and, in many instances, is revelatory in its deft treatment of America’s racial history.
To be sure, the film’s cameos of notable actors playing white presidents hews to the popular belief that the only way to tell a black story is through white historical characters and actors. The most recent example, of course, is the film “Lincoln,” which told the story of emancipation by deleting African American characters such as Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist who met with president Lincoln three times and became the president’s racial conscience on the matter of slavery and freedom.
When it comes to America’s tortured racial history, the cinematic approach has been to let white characters speak for, about, and in lieu of blacks. The 1989 film “Mississippi Burning” invented two white protagonists (one of whom was an FBI agent) to save the day during 1964’s bloody but triumphant Freedom Summer (an effort at interracial democracy in the south that featured hundreds of white volunteers), even though the law enforcement sided with white terrorists during the events the film depicts.
Rather than allowing black activists — such as Stokely Carmichael who led Greenwood, Mississippi’s local project that summer — to speak, the film obscenely invented a scenario that cast villains as saviors and portrayed genuine heroes as helpless victims. “Mississippi Burning” sparked rightful outrage from activists and historians for willful dissemblance in changing the heroes of Mississippi’s 1964 Freedom Summer from black students and white volunteers to white FBI agents.
In contrast, “The Butler” presents a depiction of civil rights era violence that’s powerful and moving. It’s also unusual, since Hollywood has studiously avoided a film that accurately explores racial violence during the 1960s.
“The Butler” anchors the evolution of race relations through the different presidents who occupy the White House. Some portrayals are more effective than others, but “The Butler” stands out for highlighting President Kennedy’s historic June 11, 1963 speech where he proclaimed civil rights as a national “moral issue.”
However, Daniels does an extraordinary job of illustrating the harsh realities of Jim Crow, which was the nickname of a racial regime that allowed blacks to be lynched, raped, and brutalized with no hope for justice.
The film opens in the White House with Cecil, the aged title character, reminiscing about his past. “The only thing I ever knew was cotton,” he says. “It was hard work.” Indeed.
The key moments of the civil rights era are seen or alluded to, including Emmett Till’s shocking 1955 lynching in Mississippi, the 1957 Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis, and the sit-in movement that began in the winter of 1960.
Historical figures such as James Lawson, the nonviolent organizer who helped organize sit-ins in Nashville, Tennessee, are given effective miniature portraits. Scenes that re-enact efforts by black students to receive service as segregated lunch counters are powerful as both drama and history.
The tragedy of racism, one the film expertly documents, is how deeply it is etched into the fabric of American life.
Daniels does take dramatic license. The most obvious and at times implausible is the way in which Lewis Gaines manages to participate in every major racial struggle of the 1960s. But Lewis’s evolution from sit-in participant and Freedom Rider to Black Panther parallels Stokely Carmichael, the civil rights militant turned Black Power revolutionary.
At its best, “The Butler” offers a textured look at the story of a working class black man and the steep personal cost paid in order to raise a family during the age of racial apartheid in America. Malcolm X’s famous distillation of Field Negroes vs. House Negroes undergoes a searing reexamination in Daniels’s film, as Lewis comes to view his father’s discipline and sacrifice through more compassionate eyes.
Cecil also experiences a change of heart after uncovering an old copy of the late historian Manning Marable’s classic text (originally published in 1982) “Race, Reform, and Rebellion,” a history of the civil rights and Black Power era. The now-retired butler embraces the movement enough to join his son in a protest against South African apartheid.
“The Butler” provides perhaps the most nuanced depiction of black life during the civil rights movement. The film’s view of Black Power era, chiefly by way of the Black Panther Party, is more uneven. Richard Nixon’s embrace of black power as black capitalism is illustrated with insight. However, when the film ends, the Panthers seem flat-footed and marked more by sloganeering than a vibrant recreation of a group that both organized free breakfast and vowed to jumpstart an international socialist revolution.
Fifty years ago, the March On Washington inspired a national conversation about race and democracy. But in the last three decades, despite substantive racial progress in some areas, Americans have refused to discuss race. Colorblind racism announces racial equality as a fact while ignoring unequal racial outcomes. The lengthy wait for Hollywood to finally start getting this story right is not surprising.
The movie industry remains dominated by whites and audiences, at least according to popular myth, reject films that star black protagonists (the exceptions being major movie stars such as Will Smith and Denzel Washington who routinely headline predominantly white casts). Movie about race are even tougher to produce, finance, and distribute internationally.
But as the civil rights era, along with its violence if not reverberations, moves deeper into the past, the distance required for turning history into cinematic art may at last be upon us. “The Butler,” in its mostly unflinching examination of the nation’s recent racial history, marks an important contribution to reinvigorating this dialogue in the present. With more subtle portraits and a greater depth of characterization for the film’s minor roles, “The Butler” might have been a masterpiece. Instead, it will have to settle for being the most important movie ever made about the civil rights movement’s heroic period.