I modestly recommend “Lee Daniel’s The Butler,” which offers the most thorough feature film depiction of the civil rights movement to date. Though it often oversimplifies the period, it exposes the audience to an important set of events that many Americans are unaware of as we continue to honor the 50th anniversary of the era, with the celebration of the March on Washington coming at the end of the month.
The film revolves around the life of Cecil Gaines, played by Forrest Whitaker, who eventually works as a butler in the White House for three decades. His story begins in Georgia in 1926, where he and his family live on a cotton plantation. At the opening of the film, a planter rapes his mother and his father is killed after offering minor protest. Of course, blacks had no recourse to such violence at that time in the Jim Crow South. After several years working inside the house at the plantation, Cecil joins millions of other black Americans in the Great Migration to the North and gets a job a working at a luxury hotel in Washington D.C.
Hired by the White House in 1957, Cecil watches President Eisenhower agonize over the crisis in Little Rock, AK, where Governor Orval Faubus is preventing the court-ordered integration of Central High School. The film accurately shows Ike’s desire for the South to have more time to implement the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, but also how he is forced to send federal troops to enforce the order when Faubus allows a climate of anarchy of prevail in the city. The film is sympathetic to Eisenhower and does not show his refusal to urge citizens to obey the Brown decision, which many historians believe offered sustenance to the South’s campaign of “massive resistance.”
The movie’s central theme is the generational tension between Cecil and his son Lewis. Like many of his era, Cecil is reluctant to openly challenge the system because of the memory of the racial violence he saw in the South (in addition to his father’s death, he witnessed a lynching as a teenager). Having escaped the worst of the Jim Crow South, he is content with his life as the movement picks up speed after the Brown decision. Representing the more militant post-World War II generation, Lewis wants to challenge the status quo.
Lewis attends Fisk University in Tennessee, one of the leading historically black colleges that educated blacks during the era of segregation. While in school, he goes to James Lawson’s workshops on nonviolence and becomes part of the student sit-in campaign in Nashville in 1960, which eventually resulted in the desegregation of public facilities in the city. He becomes part of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the fictional character becomes the Forrest Gump of the movement, appearing at all of the key events of the time, including the Freedom Rides of 1961, the Birmingham campaign of 1963, and the Selma campaign of 1965.
At the same time, Cecil watches JFK and LBJ deal with the movement from Washington. “The Butler” shows—albeit in Hollywood fashion—how the activists moved Kennedy to propose the most far-reaching civil rights bill in history after the Birmingham police unleashed fire hoses and dogs on protesters in the city. Following the assassination, LBJ pushes the final bill through Congress and then proposes the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after Alabama state troopers violently beat activists at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Through his lens, the movie portrays the movement as a grass-roots phenomenon that involved more than the incredibly important efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Throughout all of this, Cecil disapproves of Lewis’ behavior because he breaks the law though his civil disobedience and because he fears for his son’s life. Indeed, many black Americans, even leaders of the NAACP, did not support the street protest tactics of the students because they felt were too dangerous and that change should come through the courts and legislation.
Like some SNCC activists such as Stokley Carmichael, Lewis and his girlfriend become disenchanted with the non-violent strategy of Dr. King during the mid-to-late 1960s, moving closer to Malcolm X’s advocacy of self-defense. They join the Black Panthers, although Lewis becomes disenchanted with the group and leaves. At the same time, Cecil hears President Nixon and his advisers plot the group’s destruction, with references to J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO campaign that undermined the Panthers.
Lewis and Cecil continue to be estranged throughout the 1970s and 1980s, even as Lewis enters politics and is elected to Congress. Cecil continues to work into the Reagan years where he sees the president veto sanctions on apartheid-era South Africa (Congress overrode the veto). Shortly thereafter, father and son reconcile and are arrested together at a protest outside the South African embassy. Such efforts were common in the 1980s as many movement veterans saw the anti-apartheid struggle as an extension of their fight during the 1950s and 1960s.
Of course, the film concludes with Gaines living to see the election of Barack Obama, though his wife, played by Oprah Winfrey, passes away beforehand. The move concludes with Cecil going to a meeting with Obama in the White House (though we do not see him)
The film oversimplifies aspects of the movement, though in fairness it is a feature film and not a documentary. Moreover, it bizarrely casts very famous actors as presidents: Robin Williams as Ike, John Cusack as Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Reagan. It’s almost as if the filmmakers thought of the actor least likely to play the role and cast them! Still, they were following the path laid by the television miniseries “Roots” 35 years ago; if you have a black-themed project, use prominent white actors in supporting roles.
Indeed, the most important thing about “The Butler” is that it is a film about African-American issues with black characters in the lead. Most films about such issues, whether unbelievably inaccurate (“Mississippi Burning”) or relatively accurate (“Lincoln”) usually feature whites as protagonists. In “The Butler,” the white characters are clearly in background. For this reason and for its depiction of the seminal events of the civil rights era, it is a worthwhile movie.