Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Butler

This afternoon I saw the new film The Butler, loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, for 34 years a White House Butler during the administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan. Five of those presidents - Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan - are actually portrayed. But the movie isn't really about them or about the White House or even about being a butler in the White House. It's primarily about the radical transformation of race relations in the U.S. during those years - as witnessed and experienced by the butler Cecil Gaines (played superbly by Forest Whitaker), his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and his sons, friends, and co-workers. Starting from Cecil's painful childhood in violent, racist Georgia, the film traces his development of the skills called for in a domestic servant, which led him to a hotel in Washington, DC, and from there to work at the White House. Once he's there, the White House becomes background for the complex family drama involving Cecil, his wife, and his increasingly militant elder son, Louis. Both the real-life presidential politics Cecil observes close-up in the White House and his own family conflicts are all completely caught up in the political and social turbulence of the Civil Rights movement and its aftermath. It was quite a powerful experience to watch the reenactment (and occasion real footage) from that period that was so significant for my generation. There was a certain special poignancy to watching it here in Tennessee!
The family story is well developed and engaging. The White House story increasingly seems just background, although the personal interactions of the butler with the Presidents and two First Ladies are tantalizing. One might have wished for more such scenes, more insight into the complexity of that unique (because the Presidency is so unique) inter-racial, Upstairs-Downstairs story. The principal personal interactions mostly occur in tandem with the great moments in the Civil Rights struggle - starting with Eisenhower's sending Federal troops to integrate Little Rock's schools. Of course, we also get the Kennedy assassination - although almost in passing. Likewise, young Louis's personal, political journey through the Civil Rights and Black Power movements is rushed and insufficiently developed.
What makes the movie work, of course, is the excellent cast, whose superb characterizations more than make up for the story's untidy loose ends.
Ultimately it is a movie about an era and about the people who made that era and the people and society that were irrevocably transformed by it.

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