"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.