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.
The film covers a long period of time, and it attempts to give vignettes from Cecil's life a parabolic significance—so its use of montage is fitting. Daniels avoids the potential trappings of montage editing by making sure that the passage of time never diminishes the unifying, sobering conflict and tension. Because it is coupled with Whitaker's powerhouse performance, the film doesn't lose much to this more formally meditative approach.
It also helps that Winfrey, who must have one of the hardest acting jobs in the world trying to convince her audience that she's not Oprah, comes close to accomplishing just that as the sometimes-troubled mother often caught between the father and son. Whitaker might have our attention in the White House, but during intriguing scenes at home—where the Gaines family has achieved a private space with the possibility of extended leisure—Winfrey's performance avoids any distracting self-importance.
This issue of self-importance is precisely a threatening problem because the film's subject is so important—to even flirt with cheapening it is especially discomforting. Cecil is told early in his life that "the room should feel empty when you're in it," a statement with a dehumanizing slant, coming from the whites who say it. But Cecil is subversive by successfully enacting a self-forgetting service characterized by his increasing sense of freedom. The love, care, and selflessness he devotes to his craft makes him one of the most respected and recognizable figures in one of the most power-hungry settings in the world. And when necessary, some of the best directors know how to empty their films of themselves in just this manner.
A significant voiceover in the film says that there are wrong ways to rid darkness among our people and power structures: "only light can do that." Butler's light shines brightest when it employs the classic element of montage theory—that by juxtaposing two images, you can create a third meaning—in a way that slowly reveals the at-bottom pursuit of both the father and the son to restore perception.
Racism is damningly disorienting because of its destructive insensitivity to what it means to be human. Only the light of truth—courageously shined in the particular ways we're called to illuminate—can bring us to our senses. And (though at times in spite of itself) Butler serves up some welcome doses of radiant humanity.
The Butler depicts scenes of racially motivated violence. While not graphic, one early scene features the disturbing brutality of a rape and murder. Two scenes show two dead, hanged men. Some thematic sexual material features proposition for sex and an allusion to an affair. The film also features the repeated usage of derogatory terms for African-Americans, a handful of religious profanities, and two f-words.