In Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Cecil Gaines and his son want the same thing: equal protection under the law. The film is an important reminder that there are many different ways to play a significant part in achieving that dream.
Forest Whitaker delivers a commanding performance as Cecil Gaines — the fictional character loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, who grew up on a plantation and became a butler at the White House, where he served eight consecutive presidents. Cecil is a master of his emotions and has a deep understanding of his place in the social order: whether on the farm or in the Oval Office, his job is always to be in the room without being noticed.
Cecil takes up the role of the invisible man with pride and integrity. He works within the structures formed by the institutions of segregation, discrimination, and unequal representation. But he manages to make breakthroughs, however small and hard-fought. He fights for equality by asking his supervisor for a small raise in pay, and he fights for fairness by insisting that he is treated like his white counterparts. The audience watches Cecil win one pay raise after decades of trying by appealing to the President himself. This was Cecil’s fight: quiet, deliberate, persistent, and courageous for his generation.
Cecil’s son, on the other hand, grows up in a more revolutionary time, with a more revolutionary vision. Louis Gaines represents the radical voice in the fight for social justice. His character is a composite of all those who participated in sit-ins; rode the bus during the Freedom Rides; walked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and later became members of the Black Panther Party. Like his father, Louis is motivated by the stench of discrimination — but unlike his father, his fight is more directly confrontational.
This film has an important message: the fight for civil rights was, and is, far from one-dimensional. This month we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and honor names like King, Lewis, Randolph, Rustin, Wilkins, Young, Evers, Reuther, Prinz — great men and great leaders who changed the course of history. But we should also celebrate those like Eugene Allen who fought away from the front lines — far from the white hot glare of the media.
Many of them were women, extraordinary women and great civil rights leaders like Rosa Parks, Johnnie Carr, Ella Baker, Dorothy I. Height, Daisy Bates, Ruby Hurley, Myrlie Evers Williams, Fannie Lou Hamer, Gloria Richardson and Maxine A. Smith. These women were often excluded from public leadership roles because of the gender norms at the time, but they contributed nevertheless, by participating in local rallies, organizing youth movements, mobilizing and raising funds on the neighborhood level, or simply maintaining their dignity in the face of oppression.
I often think of the quiet grace and dignity of Mildred Bond Roxborough, one of my mentors at the NAACP. She was barely 10 years old in 1935 when she started selling copies of The Crisis as a way to help the NAACP pay its bills. She worked as national staff field secretary and later rose to the rank of Director of Development at the NAACP. Piece by piece, magazine by magazine, duty by duty, she helped strengthen the Association and the broader civil rights movement in a career that spans more than six decades. She served with distinction and humbly formed the backbone of the fight for social justice.
Lee Daniels has produced an insightful and historic narrative that has taken creative responsibility in portraying each of the character’s complexities. Positive images of the diverse and perplexing roles we have played in American culture on all fronts remind us of our enduring strength and challenge us to keep getting stronger. The Butler is a reflection of who we were yesterday and who we are today — game changers.