‘The Butler’: Small-scale epic

Teodoro Jose Joaquin
Film is a window to the mind of an observer-survivor in US racial history

WINDOW TO THE MIND. Whitaker's 'Butler' beholds history. Photo from the film's Facebook 

MANILA, Philippines – “The Butler,” the Lee Daniels film touching on American racial issues which still resonate in that already multiracial society, has been riding high on the US box office on its 4th week as of this writing.

The film stars Oscar winner Forest Whitaker and, more significantly, Oprah Winfrey – she with her global fame that is not unfamiliar to the Filipino public, going by the response here to her alleged recent encounter with racism.

READ: Racism greets Oprah in Swiss shop

But “The Butler” didn’t last a week in Metro Manila’s cinemas.

My friend and I were able to catch the movie at Southmall’s Cinema 5, on what turned out to be its last screening day after 5 days in the cinemas.

We practically had the theater all to ourselves, as if this were our private screening room, although there were 3 other moviegoers in the balcony.

In the US, “The Butler” conquered the box office. (The trailer is in the link below.)

READ: ‘The Butler’ opens at top of box office

Following on its heels at No. 2, as of this writing, is the British boy band film “One Direction: This Is Us.”

Going by this box-office trend, it’s easy to read the pulse among the US moviegoing public, which is united in its still fresh history and in its inclination as well toward popular culture.

Pop culture is universally understood.

But all politics is local, which is why America’s classic racial concerns are too distant from our milieu, which, to be sure, has its own racial facet.

READ: Are Filipinos racist?

But “The Butler,” ultimately, is more than just about African-Americans and the civil rights movement. It’s about the human condition.

The film is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, the African-American who was a butler at the White House for 34 years, serving 8 US Presidents, Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan.

His story was first told in a “Washington Post” report in 2008, “A butler well served by this election” – which in turn inspired Daniels’ film.

Allen went on to live up to the age of 90 and saw a remote possibility in his youth becoming realized at last – a black man elected as the main resident of the White House.

Allen was invited to Barack Obama’s first inaugural address and was in tears during that historic ceremony.

Forest Whitaker’s character in the film is named Cecil Gaines. It’s an implied understanding that his character is Allen recreated onscreen. Thus, critics are careful not to call this picture a “biopic” because of that and other changes in the film for dramatic effect.

Much of this article is a spoiler, although the film is no longer shown in theaters.

The film opens with an aging Gaines seated in one of the receiving areas of the White House. It is President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration and Gaines is waiting for his escort to the ceremony.

READ: Obama tears up over ‘Butler’ film

From there, we are taken back in time – the turn of the century or the fin de siècle in glittering Paris.

But we are here in the cottonfields of Macon, Georgia, where Gaines and his family have toiled all their lives, together with other “Negro slaves.” Still practically owned by a white family, even after the US Civil War, the black farmers are treated like animals.

The young Gaines is shown as a happy child playing with his dad in the fields. Their employer’s eldest son suddenly appears and summons Gaines’ mother to a nearby barn. 

Soon enough he hears his mother screaming. Then she rushes out of the barn, distraught, horrified, eventually losing her sanity.

Gaines witnesses how his father, reluctant to respond violently, at last attempts to confront his white master, who shoots him dead in broad daylight.

But the young Gaines stays in the same farm, growing up to fulfill his turn to serve the white family.

The matriarch, as if prodded by remorse for her family’s back story with the young boy, “promotes” him up the ladder of servitude.

Gaines obliges, serving the man who raped his mother and killed his father.


As a teenager, he resolves at last to flee from this domestic hell in the open countryside. He becomes a vagrant, and it comes to a point he steals food to survive.

But he runs into a good Samaritan, an African-American like him who takes pity on the boy and takes him under his wing.

He imparts to Gaines his kitchen skills. In time Gaines becomes a waiter.

We are now in a first-class hotel in 1952 and Gaines is serving VIPs. A guest notices his reticent, thoroughly professional demeanor – oblivious to racist remarks, but candid about his opinions when sought, without being combative.

That evening, Gaines is offered work at the White House.

The hotel guest who admires his professionalism turns out to be an administrator at the White House. And this is where Gaines’ life becomes more interesting, if from his quiet, confined distance.

He serves coffee and refreshments at the Oval Office, in the course of crucial decisions that also concern his fellow blacks.

Changing times

Gaines becomes older and raises his own family, His son is unlike him, and more attuned to the increasing activism of the times.

The son is portrayed by David Oyelowo, the acclaimed English stage actor now in the film industry.

Gaines is shown bringing food to guests, and this scene is cut to a sit-down strike at a restaurant elsewhere, away from the comfort of the White House, as his son joins the protest against that establishment’s segregation policy.

He and the other ralliers are beaten up by the police and thrown in jail with Martin Luther King Jr.

The film seamlessly presents the passing of time, along with the paradigm shifts in American society as it forges ahead, toward its present cosmopolitan modernity.

For an advocacy film, “The Butler” broadly succeeds in moderating its earnestness to the discipline of storytelling.

Calibrating fashion

Since his election in 2008, Obama may have disappointed not a few of his supporters with his deliberate, calibrating fashion in managing critical issues that his hard-line skeptics, in turn, have seized upon – from the economy to the intermittent crisis in the Middle East.

In many ways, this presidential style is informed by the collective African-American experience – embodied in this film by Whitaker’s character who also has Obama’s bearing.

Then there’s the activist stance of MLK, brought to its extreme, during the heady 1960s, by the Black Panthers.

The beauty of this film is its very window to the mind of an observer-survivor from this protracted chapter in American history, who regards with a peasant’s serenity the civil rights movement in its conflicting impulses – and its tide of struggle, upheaval, and change.

This is storytelling on a small scale yet handling an epic narrative.

The film is a different turn from the flamboyance of Spike Lee’s “joints” (as this filmmaker calls his films) like “Malcolm X” (1992) and of Alan Parker’s “Mississippi Burning” (1988) – another earnest film along this theme that thrives instead in its violence.

“The Butler” is touted as a major contender for the 2014 Oscars. Maybe by then, it will draw a long queue if reshown in the Philippines.

Here’s the trailer of ‘Malcolm X’:

And here’s a gripping scene from ‘Mississippi Burning’:

 – Rappler.com

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