Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in a scene from Lee Daniels’s The Butler. (AP Photo/The Weinstein Company/Anne Marie Fox)
Have you heard about the right-wing outrage over The Butler, the movie about the faithful White House retainer who served under presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan, and transforms himself from a Booker T. Washington to a W.E.B. Du Bois under the tutelage of his civil rights activist son?
The movie presents a sort of Forrest Gump journey through the American civil rights movement, from Eisenhower’s anguish over whether to send federal troops to escort black students past the racist mobs into Little Rock High School to the 1980s protests over apartheid. When I heard about it, I was skeptical. I wrote on Facebook before the first time I tried to see it (it was sold out; my mostly black neighborhood is crazy about the thing) that I “will try to keep open mind but dollars to donuts my dominant impression will be: ‘When there’s finally a movie about a white man serving as foil to the moral development of a black man—then, and only then, Dr. King’s dream will be on its way to fulfillment.” You know the kind of thing I was afraid of: the “Magical Negro” narrative, in which a black character “who often possesses special insight or mystical powers” exists only to come to the spiritual aid of the white protagonist.
It turned out to be far richer than I’d expected—not another Bagger Vance retread but in fact a refreshingly pointed examination of political conflict within African-American families. In a key plot setup—spoiler approaching—Cecil Gaines, the hyper-competent, hyper-compliant butler played by Forest Whitaker, is inspired by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. to present himself to his martinet boss, played by an icy Jim Gleason, to complain that black White House employees are paid less for the same work and are denied opportunities for promotion. In response, he hears the glorious battle cry of freedom beloved of American bosses everywhere: if you don’t like it, you can quit.
Soon, though, comes the reign of Ronald Reagan, and a second key plot development (spoiler alert). The second time his boss refuses his protest, Whitaker’s butler responds that he’ll be sure to tell the commander-in-chief, Mr. Reagan, about his objections. The boss’s jaw, proverbially, drops, the black staffers get their raises and promotions, and the wisdom of Booker T. Washington’s advice to generations of black men—that the best way to advance is to do your job exceptionally well and to cultivate powerful white patrons—is affirmed. Then, however, in one of the fictionalized film’s few accuracies, Nancy Reagan personally invites him to a state dinner—which ends up (back to fiction again) cementing his turn to Du Bois–ism: he feels the sting of shame at witnessing how his butler-friends are forced to display obsequiousness toward him; almost simultaneously, he overhears President Reagan forcefully asserting his intention to veto South African sanctions. He soon quits, and—spoiler! spoiler! spoiler!—ends up in jail with his son for protesting American accommodation with apartheid.