Lee Daniels “The Butler”: A Study in Contrasts

A review of how the film plays with duality and encourages viewers to ask questions of the roles they play in affecting change.

Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker in “The Butler” (Photo Credit: Anne Marie Fox)

Last Friday night I joined the droves of people across America who went to see “The Butler” over the weekend. I was both excited and nervous to see this historic fable about Cecile Gaines, a man who served eight presidents during his time as a butler in the White House. I was looking forward to watching some of my favorite actors morph into historical figures but I wasn’t too excited about stepping back into history. Less than two minutes into “The Butler” I was faced with “Strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree” and I, like an over-ripened fruit spills its spoiled juices once it hits the ground, was emotionally hit and tears fell down my face. I wanted to look away but I knew that I shouldn’t. Next to those dangling bodies appeared a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” And with that, director Lee Daniels provided a little light, as much as could be seen through the graying eyes of his main character, Cecile, who was seated in the foyer of the White House ready to take us on his retrospect for life.

Cecile takes us from the cotton field where he was visible worker among his parents and others–visible enough to not only be seen but to see the violence that took his father and sense the sexual violence waged against his mother–to the houses and hotels where he learned to be a domestic, an invisible worker who lived to serve and not say much. Cecile, played by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, is an affable servant who masters smiling with his eyes and being disarming despite his 6 foot 2 inch stature, yet all of this was uncomfortable. I didn’t want to watch Cecile be an agreeable butler. In comes Cecile’s son Louis, a young man whom you can sense has a problem with his father’s career complacency. He doesn’t say much in his initial onscreen time, but he has eyes that speak volumes. Here we begin to see some of Lee Daniels’s best work in the film, which is the study in contrasts he sets up between father and son, mother and potential daughter-in-law, those just trying to survive and those striving in the fight for justice.

This study in contrasts plays out in the context of Cecile serving in the White House and Louis serving on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. It begins most poignantly with Cecile’s revelation of the “two faces” every black person must wear, the face worn to operate around white people and the one worn around black people–which is most likely an authentic reflection of self. When Cecile spoke of the two faces, I and the rest of the predominantly black audience let out a collective moan, no doubt because we knew the two faces too well. Cecile was speaking from a context 50 years earlier and yet, 50 years later, the two faces still exist and play a role in the daily functioning of some black people. Cecile wears two faces, but his son refuses and instead Daniels sets him up as one of the young faces in the Civil Rights Movement. The film switches between Cecile’s quiet life of service to Louis’s rowdy life of shaking up the system and the astute viewer will begin to wonder, “Am I about the quiet life of just working with my head down to support myself and my family? Or am I about the loud life, the activist’s life of shaking up the system to expose injustice, sacrificing myself?” The movie deals with the sacrifices that were made so that we could have equal access and rights. Sacrifices that were made by the people on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement and those that were made behind the scenes by people such as black domestics. Daniels includes a speech by Dr. King to Cecile’s son on the importance of the black domestic and their subversive nature, which was poignant in the moment and spoke truth to the black domestic’s power in a way that is rarely considered in the dominant narrative of American history. Yet, regarding subversion, I wonder if the black domestic fell into it by circumstance instead of by explicitly choosing it as a political strategy to break down racial barriers. I wonder if white people people saw their black servants as agents of their change of heart or did they merely tolerate their presence which made it seem like a change was coming. I state this not to critique Dr. King’s words, but to set them against the narrative Daniels provided which does not present Cecile as someone who was actively trying to do anything other than survive and casts the various presidents as those who, sometimes, just wanted a negro’s perspective to bolster their own success in office. But I welcome correction on this matter. Nevertheless, the film can show us something about ourselves and makes us sit with the question, “What side of the struggle am I on?”

Lest I take up this review with talk of male power, I can’t neglect the role of women in the film. Media mogul and sporadic actress Oprah Winfrey plays Cecile’s wife, Gloria, a stay at home mother. At once I wanted to be happy that she wasn’t the one serving because that would perpetuate the trope of voluntary surrogacy among black women in post-Antebellum America—this is not to say that it didn’t exist but it is to say that portrayals of women in such roles have been exhausted in cinema. But, in exchange for this trope, we get the long-suffering black woman. Gloria takes care of home and the children but has a husband who neglects to take care of her because he is too busy with work. This trope appears frequently in black film and also, if we think about it, haven’t we seen Oprah play this role before? Isn’t there a bit of the longsuffering gene in “Beloved’s” Sethe, “Women of Brewster Place’s” Mattie Michael and “Color Purple’s” Sofia? I’ll not divulge how Gloria got over, but I will ask those who have seen and will see the movie in the coming weeks to examine their feelings toward her. What, if any, power does she have throughout this film? Juxtapose her with Yaya Alafia’s (formerly DeCosta) Carol Hammie, the young headstrong friend turned love interest of Louis. In taking up the concept of the study in contrasts I mentioned earlier, we butt heads with two types of women, the one willing to stand by her man despite not getting her core needs met and the one willing to ride or die—or kill—without her man. Gloria serves a fundamental role in keeping her family together at all costs and Carol comes onto the scene as a woman who sought out a cause for herself, not for a man. She doesn’t follow Louis, she marks her own path and Daniels’ direction allows her character to stand on her own in a room full of men and with a face full of spit.

Brief character sketches and analysis aside, “The Butler” is a worthwhile film for people from all walks of life to see. It recounts many of the pivotal stories of our history in a way that leaves room for us to insert ourselves and wonder where we would have fit in the story. With the film’s long list of stars from a front-toothless Terrance Howard playing a philandering husband and a dead-on Nancy Reagan played by Jane Fonda to David Banner’s cameo appearance which makes me pray  he is out of the rap game and into acting forever, I enjoyed watching all of these stars embody their characters in ways that displaced their larger than life celebrity selves. As cliché as it is to end this way, I laughed, I cried, and I was deeply moved by “The Butler.” Like any movie, a number of critiques can be made, but more than that, I hope that every person who sees this film will reflect on their role in making the world a place where all are truly free and acknowledge that there we are still in the midst of that struggle toward freedom.

About the author, Nicole Symmonds

Nicole Symmonds is a newly-minted Master of Divinity joining the droves of people with MDiv behind their name who aren’t planning to minister—at least not from behind a pulpit. She views writing as a type of ministry and is happy to have the opportunity to return to her first vocational love while she continues to discern God's call upon her life. Nicole currently resides in Atlanta where she works as a freelance writer and journalist focusing on issues in religion and spirituality in the black experience, sexuality and spirituality, and pop culture and entertainment.
  1. I teach 9th graders in a small high school outside of Los Angeles.We are quite isolated in the high desert, but many of my students have moved from more urban areas. Our school is about 40% black and 40% hispanic. They know nothing of civil rights history. I had them do a research project on MLK, jr and the civil rights movement last week. They learned a lot of facts. I intend to show them “The Butler” to bring their work to life. Thank you for your work and thoughts. Mrs. V.