Art Review

The Butler: Broken Promises and Political Redemption

Andrew DeCort

The basic ideal at the heart of the American political project is the gradual redemption of founding promises enshrined in law through popular struggle and political process. The Declaration of Independence (1776) stated: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The U.S. Constitution (1787) declared: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice…, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Lee Daniels’ ‘The Butler’ is a gripping exploration of nearly a century of American popular struggle and political process toward the (partial) redemption of these founding promises for African-American citizens set in the everyday intimacies and agonies of Cecil Gaines’ (Forest Whitaker) family as he works as a butler in the White House spanning eight presidencies.

We meet Cecil as a boy in 1926 on a Georgia plantation picking cotton with his father and mother. Immediately, Cecil’s mother (Mariah Carey) is called into the barn by the plantation owner and raped. As Cecil begins to scream, his father intones to him, “It’s his world; we’re just living in it.” When the owner re-emerges from the barn and Cecil’s father makes a stutter of protest, the white man turns around and shoots him in the head. Out of pity, the owner’s mother then calls Cecil to work inside as a “house n*****,” telling him, “The room should feel empty when you’re in it.” This is Cecil’s world, Cecil’s America.

With this heinous backstory, for the next two hours we’re taken on a remarkable journey into the joys and traumas of Cecil’s family and Cecil’s America as he eventually comes to serve presidents and struggles to hold his family together amidst the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and much else. What is so noteworthy about Daniels storytelling is the way in which he holds together the everyday and the extraordinary, moving seamlessly from drinks and games at home in Cecil’s living room with his wife (Oprah Winfrey), sons, and neighbors to gut-wrenching sit-ins, freedom rides, lynchings, assassinations, and Cecil’s alienation from his son Louis (David Oyelowo) over the right way to pursue change. Much like ‘The Help,’ ‘The Butler’ weaves together bursts of hilarity, tears of sorrow, and shouts of victory as it explores the “double face” that Cecil and other African-Americans were forced to wear between home and the White House.

Toward the end of the film, as Cecil looks back over his life, he reflects, “Americans always turn a blind eye to what we’ve done; we look outside and judge [others].” Without simplistically lionizing or demonizing his characters, Daniels gives us the gift of 132 minutes of lucidity and honesty about “what we’ve done” over the last century to damn and redeem the founding promises of the American project. Climaxing with the election of Barak Obama in 2008, ‘The Butler’ shows – amidst the brutalities and broken promises – the ascent of African-Americans from the cotton field to the White House’s kitchen to Commander-in-Chief.

In a profound sense, ‘The Butler’ endorses neither pessimism nor optimism about America. Instead, it brilliantly depicts the painful struggle to redeem America’s founding promises and inspires hope that these promises can continue to be redeemed as ordinary citizens do what is within their power – be it sit-ins or serving tea – to make their society a more truthful, more faithful, “more perfect Union.”


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