Lee Daniels' film The Butler, with its star-studded cast, is a powerful demonstration of the varied and often complicated perspectives of African Americans during the civil rights movement. Like similar period dramas, The Butler highlights the dangerous journey of African Americans who worked to demolish racial barriers while celebrating their unwavering determination in the fight for social justice. However, unlike films of a similar ilk, The Butler plays close attention to the conflicts within the black community during the time.
Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a White House butler whose tenure spans the Eisenhower to Reagan administrations and coincides with the burgeoning civil rights movement. Gaines witnesses political pressures in both his professional and personal dimensions. At work he overhears and sometimes plays counselor to sitting presidents as they try to respond to complicated racial dynamics. At home, his relationship with his son grows strained as their viewpoints fall on opposite sides of the black political spectrum.
Louis, his oldest son, is an educated freedom fighter. He turns down a place at Howard University in the relatively safe environment of Washington D.C., and instead attends Fisk University in Nashville — a city rife with racial tension and hostility.
At Fisk, the young Gaines begins his transition from quiet citizen to vocal protester. He regularly participates in sit-ins, endures brutality, and welcomes prison. As his will strengthens, his relationship with his apolitical father weakens.
Cecil Gaines has no desire to participate in the movement, as it would ultimately jeopardize his career and alienate his superiors. Growing up on a sharecropping plantation in the South, Cecil had been molded into a passive domestic. He witnessed his father's murder, heard the rape of his mulatto mother, and saw black men lynched and forgotten. It's no surprise that he's unwilling to take up the struggle.
The relationship between Cecil and Louis was not an uncommon one — blacks were not collectively unified during the civil rights movement. Some believed in armed resistance, others believed in peaceful protest, and the rest sat on the sidelines. A number of African Americans expressed the desire to close income inequalities while others narrowed in on the legal system. Some groups worked to advance the union of church and family while some battled without a sense of divinity. This spectrum of approaches resonated into competing philosophies and incongruent interests.
In short, blacks did not all agree; to think they did is daft. Just as we do today, African Americans during that time came from a variety of backgrounds — it is unreasonable to believe that during a time of great social, political, and cultural strife that they'd all find themselves on the same page.
The discourse was potent precisely because our ancestors held a multitude of perspectives. Social justice methods varied and, through this variation, the ability to communicate was strengthened, exposure to new concerns was heightened, and relative ignorance of each began to evaporate.
Those individual experiences of the movement have been usurped and mystified in representations of it ever since. Instead, we often only see a cursory conglomerate with one point of view. The symbols are familiar: peaceful protest, hoses and dogs, cross burnings in the rural South. Individual stories have been woven into a fanciful tale of black versus white, us versus them, right versus wrong. Simplistic plot lines are easily relatable and sell movie tickets which is all the more reason to applaud Lee Daniels for correcting pervasive misinformation.
More accurate reflections of the interdynamic struggle of the civil rights movement are gaining traction in the world outside the big screen. Anthony J. Badger of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, for example, recently wrote an essay demonstrating the varying methods activists used to fight for social justice. Hollywood has been slower on the uptake. The Help, the most recent film exploring racial difference, tacitly invited varying perspectives through housemaids Minny and Aibileen. However, their subtextual interactions were lost within the larger plot.
In contrast, Lee Daniels’ depiction of the complexity of black opinions is realistic, honest, and fresh. He highlights an ideological diversity that is frequently overlooked or disregarded in mainstream America's depictions. He also unapologetically gives voice to the vibrant array of individuals — voices usually silenced by the commodification of a priceless struggle.