Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines who is a black kid on a cotton plantation in the 20s. His mother is raped and his father is murdered. To escape poverty and persecution he becomes a butler, eventually moving in as the White House butler from the Eisenhower era (1956) to Reagan (1989). He serves through the Civil Rights movement to Kennedy’s assassination, to Nixon and his son’s involvement in the Black Panthers, and later in the anti-aparteid movement. One of his sons is killed in Vietnam. Oprah plays his spouse and we see heated domestic times. Cecil Gains lives to see the inauguration of Barack Obama.
The film turns history into soap opera and a pretty demeaning one for black people. That the key period of the history of the struggle for civil rights is tracked through the subservient role of being a butler is surely trivializing. Cecil Gaines and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) are invited to dinner by the Reagans surely as a patronized mascot and show trophy. That this is played for acceptability by the ex-radical Jane Fonda (playing Nancy Reagan) is breathtakingly ironic. At one point Cecil Gaines’ son attacks Sidney Poitier for being the white man’s idea of what a black man should be (anyone who’s suffered watching Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner will see the point), yet The Butler itself is little more than an updating of that film insofar as it simplifies and sanitizes the struggle for equal rights. It does this by turning this struggle into soap opera routines brought on as a dramatic backdrop to the life of the butler, history as walk on epiphanies for the serious business of sorting out domestic happiness and keeping the silver polished. We’ve seen this in lots of films that trawl through the crucial moments of the 20th century.
This film could also be called “The Shawshank Redemption all over Again”. In that film the passing years are marked by change of film stars on the wall posters in the prison cell, in The Butler it’s the change of decor and style in the White House. Like Morgan FrTheeeman in The Shawshank Redemption, the early deference shown by Gaines when he appears before white authority in asking for a pay rise or in Freeman’s case, in asking for his freedom, is replaced by a more self confident attitude. A more perceptive look at a butler’s life is the novel and film Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro in which Anthony Hopkins show that this kind of servitude can be escapism from personal responsibility and emotional commitment. The false idealism of this kind of self effacing indignity, (after all, he’s serving some pretty worthless people) is well exposed in that story. In Remains of the Day Hopkins is insulted by being patronizingly cross examined over his presumed political ignorance, but in The Butler the cross questioning of Cecil Gaines is more benign but still paternalistic. It does show that The Butler lacks the insight of Remains of the Day. Cecil Gaines is perceived merely as an anachronistic Uncle Tom or “House Nigger” by his radicalized children. The presidents are wheeled on to provide the game card quotes, another Shawshank way of marking the passing years. Eisenhower is elderly and genteel, the Kennedys are chic, John Kennedy as usual is overly praised for providing cost-free rhetoric whilst the real work of civil rights goes on down South. Nixon is cornered and self pitying. The only other president deemed worthy of a walk on part is the mobile statue called Ronald Reagan. Martin Luther King also gets a walk on part, he defends the butler’s job against Gaines’ radical son but one gets the feeling he’s simply making excuses for the film itself. The film is just a soap opera of acceptable black stereotypes.