Two approaches to subverting racism in 1960s America show up in one particular sequence in Lee Daniels' The Butler. The sequence cross-cuts scenes centering on Cecil Gaines (based on Eugene Allen and played by Forest Whitaker) and his son Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo). The former is a butler in the White House, providing quiet service for the President and various other powerful white men; the latter is a student at Fisk University who has fervently taken up the cause with the civil rights movement in Nashville, Tennessee.
In the interweaving scenes, the father gracefully sets the table for White House elites while the son shows grace under persecution as he waits to be served in the "whites only" section of a segregated lunch counter. Cecil sets the plate before his white superiors with a noticeable sense of quiet dignity, despite his directive to go unseen. Meanwhile, demanding to be treated as more than a second-rate citizen, Louis waits for his plate to be filled and pays the consequences from which his father has desperately tried to protect him.
As a child on a Georgia cotton plantation, Cecil witnessed the rape of his mother. When his father attempted to stand up to the plantation owner, he was shot in the head. Scarred by this violence, Cecil begins to choose a calculated acquiescence in order to survive, particularly when he has a wife and children to protect. Yet, his is a "subversive subservience": his upward mobility is more qualified by the demonstration of dignity than by submitting to its alleged absence. Louis resents his father's reticence to a more activist approach, and so his tactics are not without potential excesses—like the temptation to retaliatory violence.
This sequence's complicated picture of a continuing, multigenerational struggle against racism in America is essential, because it counteracts the tendency of the rest of the film to be too self-aware of its own importance. A vitally truthful film, Butler nearly undermines itself with a few too many cues that distract from the story of Eugene Allen and instead suggest, "See, isn't this award-worthy?" However, bolstered by terrific performances from Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey (playing Cecil's wife, Gloria) in particular, Butler doesn't lazily rely on the remarkable story of a man who serves eight Presidents during a 34-year tenure at the White House.
A lesser film might have celebrated Cecil's life without pointedly asking whether he is merely obliging America's racist conditions by accepting upward mobility within its broken system. And an even lesser film might have allowed this legitimate question to overwhelm the overriding issue: that the African-American experience has been forcefully characterized by these sorts of decisions.
Thankfully, Butler is neither of these.
Butler moves between Washington, D.C., within the Presidents' spaces of deliberation about the hateful tendencies of the national identity, and Nashville, a significant locale of the civil rights movement. The grander moments in these places—the impact of America's historical racism and the fight against it—are then localized in the struggle between father and son. This heartrending conflict appropriately captures the distressing emotional truth: the effects of racism's divisiveness know no boundaries.