'A Witness to History': The Butler as a Civil Rights Movement Survey
Updated: Dec 20, 2020
As the infection rate and death toll of the Coronavirus threatens to surpass the million and one-hundred thousand mark respectively by Memorial Day weekend, it is not shocking to hear a number of cultural, political, and historical icons who have died amongst the countless tens of thousands that do not make headlines. One of the most recent notable victims of the pandemic is Wilson Roosevelt Jerman, who worked for eleven US presidents full-time through George H.W. Bush and part-time for Clinton, George W. Bush, and through President Obama’s first term. Like his contemporary Eugene Allen, who inspired the 2013 historical drama The Butler, Jerman began working at the White House during the Eisenhower administration. It was not until the Kennedy administration that Jerman became a White House Butler like Allen, but the experiences the two men shared with the elected inhabitants of the White House is storied and we are given some insight into presidential-staff relations in Lee Daniels’ film.
Because of my background in cultural history and interest in public history, I often incorporate film into my courses. Some of these films are used as primary sources while others are retrospective and give students the opportunity to show what they have learned about assessing historical information presented in public forums. Because The Butler traces developments in race relations over much of the second half of the twentieth century from Eisenhower through Reagan, I find the film is a useful tool to inspire more nuanced discussions about the different types of activism and ideologies that were part of the African American Civil Rights Movement. Further, the film’s relatively swift swing through the longue-durée of the movement is useful in the second half of American survey courses. Likewise, the star power is impressive, and students like seeing Mariah Carey, Robin Williams, and Alan Rickman pop up in unexpected ways.
To further explicate the cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, and Mariah Carey portray central characters in the Gaines family around which the plot revolves. Along with Whitaker’s character, Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz portray White House service staff. Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schriber, and Alan Rickman took on presidential roles as Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Reagan respectively with Jane Fonda portraying his wife, Nancy.
The Butler begins with a personal tragedy in the Gaines family. The fictional Cecil Gaines grew up in a sharecropping family on a cotton plantation in Georgia, but his life changed when his father was killed after attacking his mother’s white rapist. His early training as a house servant set him up for jobs in hotel service as a young adult, and this is how he made it to Washington DC where he was hired during Eisenhower’s second term in the White House. This is the beginning of a whirlwind of eyewitness accounts of important racial decisions made by Eisenhower and those who follow him. Gaines is privy to Eisenhower’s uncertainty about how to handle the implementation of the Brown v. Board decision until the situation in Little Rock, Arkansas grows out of hand and he uses National Guard to integrate Central High School against the wishes of Governor Orval Faubus.
From there the eyewitness to history shifts from Cecil to his son, Louis, who enrolls in Fisk University and takes part in the sit-in movement, the Freedom Rides during the Kennedy administration, and the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. We see the torch pass from Kennedy to Johnson, who enacts the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after the Mississippi Freedom Summer and Selma to Montgomery Marches for voting rights. Louis is part of these activities too.
In the late 1960s, we are given a brief glimpse into the increasing radicalization of the movement precipitated by (amongst other things) the assassination of key Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. as well as the overall seething protest era of the 1960s and 1970s when anti-Vietnam War protests and various Power movements prosper. Louis joins the Black Panthers to the chagrin of his more conservative father, but he ultimately leaves the organization to run for a congressional seat shifting toward a reform from within mantra.
Oddly, the Reagan Era becomes a pivotal point in the film’s narrative. During the Reagan years, Cecil Gaines achieves some amount of parity and prestige after his decades of service in the White House—eventually receiving an invite to a state dinner. But Apartheid developments in South Africa and Reagan’s refusal to punish the country’s racial injustice with sanctions result in the long-time butler’s resignation. This issue, of any they’ve been through, bonds the father and son together—especially after they are arrested protesting South African apartheid.
The apotheosis of the film is the historic election of Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008. Cecil Gaines is invited back to the White House to meet the first black President of the United States.
Altogether, the film offers a relatively decent survey of the Civil Rights Movement, but therein lies some of the historical issues too. Louis’ uncanny participation in major Movement events becomes incredibly convenient, but I appreciate the attempt to approach the radicalization of the movement and those who participated in it—notably Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture. I say this with the caveat that the treatment of the Black Panthers and the Black Power movement still seems more informed by pop culture stereotypes emanating from Shaft and Black Dynamite rather than nuanced history. This does a disservice to the Panthers and Black Power intellectuals and activists, but is also an avenue to more discussion since students are most familiar with pre-Vietnam Era Movement. For some students, this movie is quite eye-opening, and it becomes a path for them to learn more about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s full legacy as well as Malcolm X and other important leaders and activists.
Since The Butler, there has been a number of biopics on Malcolm X and to an extent, Martin Luther King Jr, who figures prominently in Selma. Recent films have also explored the life of Colorado Springs detective Ron Stallworth who infiltrated the KKK and black female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race. None of these provide the survey that The Butler offers, but could be used to supplement or expand beyond the key figures of the Civil Rights Movement. I highly recommend assigning The Butler for American history survey courses and especially upper-level, more narrowly focused examinations of African American history, but I’d leave the others for short reviews as part of that elusive extra-credit offer that is so often requested but rarely granted.
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