The Butler to Oppression

  The film I chose was Lee Daniels’ The Butler. The film is based upon the true story of a small boy that grows up on a cotton farm, whom eventually secures a job as one of the White House butlers. The film itself covers the societal struggles that African-Americans faced in order to achieve complacency and success in a predominantly white society. The film covers many facets of how hard it is for an African-American family to survive and continue to stay cohesive amongst their different paths. What makes this film meaningful to me, is how it allows the viewers to observe how differently each character internalizes their struggles. Throughout the film we are able to learn how perspectives will affect their struggles, paths, and outcomes. (Figure 1)

Figure 1. Cecil Gaines serves up oppression behind his stone face.

While Cecil Gaines is a small boy growing up on a farm, the men, women, and children are all forced to work in the fields. In the second week of our readings, we discussed how African-American women were often forced to take on a multi-positional role as nurturers while being forced into the same working environments as men. Angela Davis gave a descriptive look at the way women were forced to maintain their motherly roles, while working the same physically demanding jobs as the men, and being removed from their work to be sexually assaulted in “The Legacy of Slavery” (Davis 6-7). The film begins with Cecil’s mother being pulled from the fields to be raped and beaten, while her husband and son are forced to observe and continue working. Though Cecil’s mother would never mentally recover, she was forced directly back to her positional roles. 
Once Cecil becomes of age, he is free to leave the cotton farm, but into a world that he describes as being much harder than the farm. He is denied work at many white businesses before he is finally forced to commit crimes survive. After breaking a window in a local hotel bakery looking for food, Cecil gets lucky and gains employment at this hotel. It is through this opportunity that he learns how to serve properly. Cecil’s perspectives are similar to that of Zora Hurston. Cecil uses his oppression as fuel to work harder, and even becomes the top butler to many American presidents. 
Cecil ends up having two children, one of which – Louis, is very comparable to Ann Petry’s protagonist in “Like A Winding Sheet”. Petty describes Jutie Johnson’s struggles as being similar to those which Louis endures. He is faced with many hardships from his white counterparts including being racially discriminated against in a diner, being beaten and generally mistreated for being black. (Petry 1499-1504) As a result of these despicable actions from the whites, Louis tries to make a difference by joining the Black Panther movement (Figure 2). 

Figure 2. A protester proudly displays his ” Is My Son Next Shirt”

To conclude, the various connections made between the struggles of the African-American community in this movie are plentiful, and beautifully detailed throughout this film. One powerful moment is when Cecil makes a reference to how Americans talk about the holocaust and other worldly problems but that we ”turn a blind eye to what we have done to our own, we talk about what happens in the world like concentration camps, when we had the same thing go on here for 200 years” (The Butler). If you have an opportunity to watch and analyze this film, Lee- in kind the individual struggles each character faces as a result of the impeding racism they are forced to endure. 


The Butler. Directed by Lee Daniels, Windy hills pictures, 2013. Film.
RedStarRadical. At the Intersection of Race and Class. 2013

Bree Newsome. Strategize Police Violence Racism. August 10th 2015

 Petry, Ann. Like A Winding Sheet. 1945. 
Davis, Angela Y. The Legacy of Slavery.


One comment

  1. I agree with the points you make regarding this film as I found the same correlation between struggles and the way those struggles define the characters’ destinies. The initial scene where Cecil’s father is murdered by the plantation hand for standing up to protect his family is very sobering, gruesome and adds to your later quote of the movie correlating actions like these to the ones the Nazis were taking against the Jews during World War II. The film also has a second storyline within it as Cecil’s son Louis goes through a new set of struggles to find his own identity within the segregated racist American society of the time. Louis goes continues to fight for civil rights until the very end of the film, and is recognized for this fight by his constituents when he is elected to congress which is in my opinion another very inspirational part of this film.


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