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August 16, 2013
'The Butler' offers contemporary look at civil rights movement
By Elise Harris *

By Elise Harris *

Inspired by the true story of Eugene Allen, one of the first black men to serve in the White House, Lee Daniels' “The Butler” details the life of Cecil Gaines, who served as a butler for eight consecutive presidential administrations from 1952 to 1986.

Opening with a young Cecil and his father working in the fields of a cotton plantation, the film begins with the rape of Gaines' mother by the plantation owner and the murder of his father who tries to intercede. The story unfolds from there as the boy is taken to work in the house by the owner's elderly mother, who teaches Gaines how to serve. He eventually leaves the plantation in order to find a better life, and more opportunities. He eventually moves to Washington D.C. and works his way up to serving at the most prestigious hotel there. After some years, Gaines is spotted by a White House employee, who is impressed with his ability to serve as well as his cadence and neutrality when speaking with politicians of all different party affiliations.

All this happening withing the first 15 or 20 minutes of an over 2-hour long movie, the rest of the film focuses on Cecil's struggle to find his place within a rapidly changing culture, as the fight for racial equality escalates. The main plot lays out the tension between Gaines and his family, as he quickly becomes immersed in his position at the White House, seeking to hide from the issues that he does not want to face. He is estranged from his son, Louis, and distanced from his wife, who turns to drinking as a way to cope with Cecil's stubbornness. His son, who becomes an active member of the Freedom Riders, participating in protests and rally's in the nation-wide effort to show that skin color doesn't matter, sees his father's role as subservient, while Cecil, who has always been taught to bow his head in the presence of whites, sees his position as respectable compared to the radical actions of his son, who seemed to have made a career out of getting beaten and put in jail.

As the fight for civil rights unfolds, the political tension, as well as the personal drama that Cecil is facing, culminate when the black community earns equal treatment and the right to vote, and Gaines is finally able to confront the issues that he did not want to face, and restores the relationships with his family that had remained strained due to his own personal pride.

Focusing mainly on the juxtaposition of Cecil Gaines and the dynamic of his family alongside the political tension in the White House, a lot of which was due to the civil rights movement, the film creatively displays the effectiveness of both approaches to the issue; that of Gaines, the silent butler who becomes well-liked and trusted by many of the president's that he serves, and who eventually confide in him, being touched by his sincerity, as well as the activity of his son Louis, whose involvement in protests and marches edifies the presidents, encouraging them to enact the policies that led to full racial equality.

At the culmination of this story of struggle and triumph, is the election of Barack Obama as president, which is cast as the ultimate fruition of the black's struggle for acceptance in society. Although the contrast between the cotton field at the beginning and Obama's election shows how drastically the situation of blacks have changed in America, the film gave the impression that Obama's election to the presidency was based solely on race, at least amongst the black community. Although the movie is trying to portray the significance of the election of a black president for the black community, especially in Cecil's personal life, which accurately reflect the significance for real-life butler Eugene Allen, the election scenes left me feeling a little bit like I was watching a campaign commercial, and I question if the movie actually depicts what the film-makers hoped to portray.

Aside from that, and the fact that it dragged on in places, the movie shows an honorable search for virtue and to do what is right, as well as the willingness to sacrifice for something that you believe in. It promotes family values, and the importance of reconciliation, while illustrating at the same time the consequences of refusing to face our own personal fears, difficulties and sins. It is a movie worth seeing – one in which the sacrifices and efforts of those who fought tirelessly to earn their equality are brought to light in a truly eye-opening way.

"The Butler" opens in theaters nationwide Aug. 16.

Elise Harris is the assistant multimedia specialist at Catholic News Agency, and is a graduate from the University of Northern Colorado with a bachelors degree in philosophy.
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