Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a powerful movie, based loosely on a true story, about an African-American man, Cecil Gaines, who rises from being a house-boy on a southern plantation to being a butler at the White House during the presidencies from Eisenhower to Reagan.
Historical events involving the White House serve as a backdrop for the main thrust of the story, a father-son relationship in conflict. The father, who has been taught to be “invisible” while doing his job, is challenged by his oldest son who, growing up during a time of huge social change, believes that African-Americans need to actively stand up for their rights.
The movie features fabulous performances from Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, David Oyelowo as his son Louis, and Oprah Winfrey as his wife, and a superb supporting cast. It manages to convey the sense of glamour and prestige of working at the White House, while highlighting the glaring contradictions between emerging public policy regarding civil rights and the White House’s perpetuation of injustice in the work place itself. On a more personal level it looks at the quandary between the desire to lead a quiet life when the status quo offers benefits way beyond those originally expected early in life and the need to stand up and risk what you have for others less fortunate.
Educated in the UK at a time when the subject of world history referred to Europe and the various jewel-in-the-crown former colonies, my knowledge of the civil rights campaign was sketchy to say the least. Yes, I’d heard of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, and UK media covered the major headline events in the U.S. as they occurred, but the movie was a real eye-opener to the extent of the unrest and struggles that persisted throughout the period.
I left the movie theater feeling that this was a period of history that I needed to know more about. I had a similar feeling after watching “Lincoln”. If anyone has any recommendations for good texts to read, please let me know in the comment box below.