December 11, 2015
In school, we learn about facts and information that are very old and distant from us. It’s not us that discover all the formulas in math classes. Figures like Pythagoras and Pascal created the formula around 2500 years ago. Concept of gravity and Newton’s laws are created by Newton more than 300 years ago. Similarly, the historical events and facts that we are taught in this class feel very distant from us. For example, Great Depression in 1929, World War II in 1939, Vietnam War in 1950, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, Black Panthers found in 1966, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke was ruled in 1978. We learn about these events, numbers, and their significances, but it is hard for us to personally relate to these incidents. The movie Lee Daniel’s The Butler follows the life of Cecil Gaines, a fictional character based on Eugene Allen, an African American who served in the White House as a Butler for over 30 years, witnessing major historical moments in the heart of all the action. The movie shows us that all the events and facts that we learned in AFRAM are not simply just words on paper, but real events that have significant effects to our society to this day.
Lee Daniels, the director of this movie, was born on December 24th, 1959 in Philadelphia, PA. Despite all the fame and riches he has been receiving recently, his childhood was very dark. Open about his childhood, Daniels stated in interviews that his father, a policeman, physically abused him to “beat it [being gay] out of me” (bio.com). Despite such violence, Daniels still thanks his father for teaching him how to appreciate stories and writings, cultivating his deep love for literature. Unfortunately, his father was killed in a robbery when Daniels was 12, leaving him uncertain about his sexuality and wondering what he can do for the future. Daniels attempted to find a job in Hollywood to fulfill his childhood passion in literature, but to no avail. To make ends meet, he found a job at a Nursing agency. Realizing he can do this job on his own, he started his own management company, growing it to worth millions of dollars. Through his work, he met a producer associated with Hollywood. Daniels sold his agency to work as a production assistant, focusing primarily on casting, to finally reach his dreams of working at Hollywood. After years of work, dissatisfied with amount of role for the African Americans, Daniels created his own agency, Lee Daniels Entertainment, and created its first movie, “Monster’s Ball”, a complicated story of biracial romance. He led Halle Berry to become the first African American to receive the Best Actress Oscar, and he himself became the first African American to solely produce Academy Award nominated film. Later, he created a controversial movie called “Precious”, which is about an obese African American girl trying to break free from violence in her life. Although this movie received many awards, it also received many critiques. Scenes such as, the lead character contracting AIDS from her father, raised many complaints on how Daniels was negatively influencing the African American stereotype. Having different thoughts, Daniels responds, “Black women are dying because everyone wants to pretend to have a certain image… Most of the AIDS patients in this country are black women. For me to portray and not tell my truth and bring it to the screen would be an injustice to me as a man—forget about a black man, but as a man. I would be lying and black women are dying” (bio.com). This shows how he is a very righteous man who faces reality, not avoiding it. This characteristic can be seen through his attempt to shine some light on the dark past of our country to the public.
Inspired by the 2008 Washington Post article written by Will Haygood called “A Butler Well Served by This Election”, Daniels first contacted Danny Strong, a screenwriter (Comingsoon.net). Daniels describes the movie as “… a film that made me think and Danny does that with his writing. It made me think about family, it made me think about my roots, it made me think about the state of the world today” (Comingsoon.net). Because of the time difference between major civil rights movements to the 21st century, we, as students, feel somewhat distant to the events. Sometimes, our society believes that racial oppression is just a matter of the past, not an ongoing problem. Through this movie, Daniels strives to honor the people who have fought so hard for equality, and to show us that all of these seemingly distant events happened in one man’s life, but also, like Daniels said, to make us think about the battles that are continuing in our world today.
The movie starts with a little boy, Cecil Gaines about 12 years old, and his parents (a White mother and a Black father) taking a picture in the middle of the cotton field. Suddenly, his mother is taken away by the plantation owner and it is implied that she was raped. The next day, the boy’s father confronts the plantation owner, but the owner shoots him right in front of the boy. Falling to the ground, the boy starts crying, but a grandmother from the plantation approaches him and says, “Stop crying. I’m gonna have you in the house now. I’m gonna teach you to be a house nigger” (Daniels). Next 7 years or so, he learns to serve the family, but runs away from the plantation, leaving his mother, in fear of also getting killed like his father. He promises himself to never let his children lay eyes on the cotton fields. Starving and disheveled, Cecil breaks into a bar in order to find food and shelter. The bartender finds him in the morning, and instead of kicking him out and sending him to jail, when Cecil asks to be his apprentice, he accepts and teaches him in a much more sophisticated level. In 1957, the bartender receives a job offer from a hotel in DC, but instead suggests Cecil to take the job. In the hotel, he meets his wife Gloria, a maid, and the head butler, Carter Wilson, who tells Cecil, “You hear nothing. You see nothing. You only serve” (Daniels). After making an impression on R.D. Warner, who oversees entire operation of the White House, Cecil is offered a job at the White House. From then on, Cecil begins to work as a butler in the White House, starting with the Eisenhower administration. Although it seemed as if everything was good on the surface, the problem was inside the family. Cecil’s eldest son, Louis Gaines was very interested in activist movements. He wanted to stand up for his people and fight for their rights. He decides to attend Fisk University, in Nashville Tennessee, to join Lawson workshop, which teaches students how to conduct nonviolence protests similar to Gandhi’s. Louis participates in the Nashville sit-in gaining national attention. Disappointed, Cecil could not understand why Louis would give up an easy life that Cecil has prepared his whole life for by going out to break the law. On the other hand, Louis could not understand why his father was being so passive about this issue. African Americans we’re not being treated as American citizens, so he wanted to stand up for them. Cecil’s philosophy of conforming to the society and changing the system from the inside differed from Louis’ view of actively seeking out to reform the society. The conflict could be seen constantly throughout the movie. As the presidents went in and out of the White House, Cecil witnessed events from the television in the White House. The Freedom bus getting bombed by the KKK, the famous incident of Civil Rights Protesters getting hosed by firemen, Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Malcolm X tours, “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Black Panther. On the other side of the television, Louis actively protested to protect the rights of the African Americans. The movie ends with a scene of Cecil meeting the first African American President of the United States, Barack Obama.
In class, Dr. Pittman constantly reminds us that what she is teaching to us is happening right now. She mentioned the 8 mile road in Detroit, and how the Whites and the Blacks are separated by a road for 8 miles long. African Americans serving in prison much more than other races. Blacks and Whites selling and using drugs at similar rates, but Blacks arrested, convicted and imprisoned at a significantly larger rate (Pittman). These are not facts from hundreds of years ago, but what is happening today. The Butler gives us the sense of how much we have come. From the cotton fields to the White House, African Americans have become much more integrated and accepted in the society. People fought and sometimes died for these rights, and we need to acknowledge and honor every one of them. However, present state shows that this is not enough. There are glaring discriminations in our society, and the battle for our rights is still ongoing. Although the facts and events from class may seem to be very distant and detached, we have to understand and accept that we are in the midst of it. The fight for complete equality has not ended yet.
“Lee Daniels Biography.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.
Douglas, Edward. “Interview: Talking with The Butler’s Lee Daniels – ComingSoon.net.”
Coomingsoon.net. CRAVEONLINE MEDIA, LLC, 14 Aug. 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Dir. Lee Daniels. 2013. Film.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. “New Jim Crow.” AFRAM 101. University of Washington, Seattle. 8 Dec. 2015. Lecture.