Basic Story: Essentially, there are three stories being told. One story (following the title) is centered around the lead character in his home: the butler (Cecil Gaines played by Forest Whitaker). This includes his wife (Oprah), older son (the revolutionary) and younger son (the patriot). Actually, a better title might have been "The Butler, Oprah, the Revolutionary and the Patriot - Black Life Over 70 years" - awkward and less punchy but perhaps more accurate. The other story is centered around the oldest son as he ventures out into the world. This involves a potpourri of every challenger/challenge levied against political authorities by blacks in the United States between 1960 and 1980 (e.g., SNCC, the SCLC and Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and the anti-Apartheid struggle). The third story is centered around the butler's interaction with the white house, including other butlers and maids, the president and his family, assorted cabinet members and diverse passersby - all whom chime in about how the US government should or should not deal with the black protestors represented by son #1.
The first story moves through plantation life, the rape of the butler's mother (who as a lighter skinned woman was likely the child of rape herself), the execution of his father by the rapist of his mother, an invitation to house negritude, training as a domestic, escape, more training as a domestic (from Linc from the TV show the Mod Squad which was just completely messed up), work (story three), home acquisition, dinners, some partying (gotta have some black folk dancing), some alcoholism and adultery (bad Oprah), dealing with son #1 seeking to engage in social struggle to his father's disappointment, dealing with son #2 going to war and getting killed, social struggle and cultural change while watching most of it on TV.
The second story follows son #1 as he seems to try everything to win the affections of some lovely coed (the reason behind many people joining struggle) and while there bringing about change - of some sort. This part of the film is a major disappointment. There is no logic to son #1's activities. He is simply trying stuff. The (r)evolution is reactionary. First, he tries non-violence, following some religious leader. White racists and authorities kick his butt, arrest him and he moves on. To what though? Well, some other non-violent tactic and religious leader. White racists and authorities kick his butt again, arrest him again and he moves on... again. He then finds his way to the Black Panthers and right before more White racists and authorities kick his butt, shoot some Panthers and then arrest him, he moves on. He does not do so, however, because he no longer believes in what the movement is doing at that time (although he alludes to this). No, he leaves because the coed never loved him. He is not done trying to change though. Like many a beaten black revolutionary, he seeks to engage in community activism and run for office. There are still arrests but as the objectives have been moderated, there are no more beat downs. The change is subtle: son #1 no longer wishes to change the system (however conceived), he merely wishes to become part of it. With "radicalism" off the table, violence is reduced. The challenger tamed, all that is left to do is some minor channeling and this something that the Butler does well.
The third story follows the butler through his work at the white house. Here, Cecil learns the ropes on what to do but mostly he learns how to stand still like the lamp or occasionally move slowly like molasses. Every now and then (seemingly in need of some insight into the "Negro") one of the white presidents will talk at him: "sorry your people are getting jacked up" says Kennedy (paraphrasing); "what do your people want" asks Nixon. All is not lamps and molasses, however. The butler also engages in his own mini-struggles at the white house trying to get a raise for him and the rest of the help. The first time, he is ignored. The second time, he get's it (after he has learned to manipulate presidential access). Let freedom ring, but not too loudly.
All story lines come together when Cecil becomes disenchanted with continued servitude around the same time son #1 realizes that the coed doesn't like him. Worlds collide as the two come to realize that they have both been engaging in a struggle of sorts. This is where my difficulty arises. What the heck were they fighting for? If it was simply a house, three squares, a job and some opportunity, then they got that. Challengers win and the basic argument of the Pop Struggle genre is supported once again where challengers attempt change something and later win. Every now and then however the film hinted at something else. Perhaps the black struggle was not about being white folks (i.e., drinking water out of a fountain on the left side - no pun intended, that's where it was). The film presumes that there is nothing at all distinct about black culture and all that they want is the chance to be white or to not have race be considered when they try to navigate through America. Now, I will not completely dismiss this objective but is it true? Some would suggest that it is not and by missing these other things, African Americans have been misunderstood. What about all the blacks that did not get jobs in the white house? Were they just lazy? Well, that does not work because there were only so many jobs in the white house. What happened to all the people displaced from the cotton fields shown in the beginning of the film? What happened to the people out rioting after Martin Luther King Jr got shot? What were African Americans supposed to do? What if they could not put up with the indignities launched toward Cecil in his first job or his second (i.e., last)? Black survival in the Butler was premised on African American subservience, wearing the mask that grins and lies, standing still like a plant and timing requests for justice as well as humanity perfectly lest one get dismissed from a room, fired or lynched (an early scene in the movie). The film tries to juxtapose the life of subservience against one of resistance but son #1 gets his ass handed to him as a pseudo activist/coed suitor - time after time. He is only "successful" when he accepts that grassroots change will not work and only through within-system behavior can he gain a voice (not change mind you - just a voice). Lift every voice and sing but, again, don't do it too loudly.
While centering the story on an individual, success of "the movement" gets individualized. One sees Cecil's job, home and opportunity to observe (white) power, the eventual success of son #1, one sees the black president, in the last scene one sees the black usher as well as the black security guard but what does this mean? Are the problems of black america resolved because the white house is open for black employment? Cecil finally gets to wear his gear from 60 years worth of presidential gifts but is all well? By the end, Cecil is alone (Oprah died), he is tired, bent (hunched over from years of living and serving) and literally being ushered into yet another orchestrated ritual. Is he free at last? Are we?
Film: American in origin (2013). Film Information.