I saw Lee Daniels’ The Butler over Labor Day weekend. The film has been given much hoopla by its producers, the Weinsteins, who are veterans in the push for Academy Awards. But the strong cast justified the publicity. Forest Whitaker played White House butler Cecil Gaines, and Oprah Winfrey played his wife. I think of Ms. Winfrey as a television personality and entrepreneur, and I was surprised to see how good an actress she is. She and Whitaker held the film together.
The movie is partly based in reality, as Cecil Gaines served presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. The film has Gaines starting at the White House with Eisenhower. It also gives Gaines a fictional son, Louis, who is involved successively with the freedom rides, Dr. Martin Luther King and, briefly, the Black Panthers.
Cecil Gaines is the preeminent black domestic. He succeeds by doing his work well, and by keeping entirely out of politics. Louis, to the contrary, actively engages in opposition to a racist social order. The point of the film is that both strategies are necessary for social progress.
It is painful to sit through a film that shows violent reactions to nonviolent freedom rides, buses being torched and the assassinations of both President Kennedy and Dr. King. It is also necessary that such films be made. Human rights are hard won in each generation, and they must not be taken for granted.