“Lee Daniel’s The Butler” is based on a true story of an African American butler (“Cecil Gaines” portrayed by Forest Whitaker) who worked at the White House for three decades serving under eight presidential administrations. The film has remained at the top of movie earnings lists for the third week in a row, bringing in $20 million. While analyst Paul Dergarabedian has attributed the success of the film “to the marketing power of [Oprah] Winfrey and a savvy choice of a release date with little competition,” there is more to its success than its late summer release.
The film has benefited from what is known as a “kairos moment.” Set apart from “chronos” which has to do with chronological order, kairos is about an opportune or purpose-filled time. “The Butler” (similar to Fruitvale Station’s release in the same weekend as the Zimmerman verdict) hit theaters at the exact moment in which American audiences would find its storyline most meaningful.
The film was released during the end of a racially charged summer in the mass media, a season that has included discussions around the use of the “n-word”, policing tactics and racial profiling. Unfortunately, these conversations are often fragmented and discussed without historical context. Police brutality and Stop and Frisk, for example, get discussed as real-time, imminent problems without larger discussions about the War on Drugs and the prison industrial complex.
These conversations have left many Americans yearning for more in the realm of racial discourse. Henry Louis Gates Jr. suggests “The Butler” offers that very thing. He states in a review of the film on The Root, “It achieves, implicitly, what so many black political figures and talking heads have been calling for since the Zimmerman verdict was announced — that proverbial ‘conversation about race called for, it seems, every time another racist incident is inflicted upon a black person.”
“The Butler” does much more than just weave together the civil rights and Black Power histories in the context of American presidencies. The film seeks to offer an intimate understanding of the black male psyche – subtly and overtly reflecting both emasculation and rage. It powerfully depicts “the two faces” many African Americans believe they must put on in order to survive in America. Again and again, the characters masterfully dance along the lines of submission and subversiveness, constantly defying and reinforcing perceptions about black masculinity and femininity.
“The Butler” pushes against our racial comfort zone through historical depictions that have so much meaning in light of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the 58th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till, and the 56th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine attempting to enter Little Rock Central High School.
I personally felt a sense of irony in watching the film. It was just two weeks ago that I stood at the Lincoln Memorial listening to civil rights icon John Lewis speak about his 23-year-old freedom fighting self. To then hear his name spoken by Winfrey’s character Gloria Gaines in “The Butler.” For months, I read articles comparing the murder of Trayvon Martin to Emmett Till. Historical echoes rang in my ear when the butler’s son Louis Gaines (played by David Oyelowo) said, “This could’ve been me” when explaining why he felt compelled to protest Till’s murder. Then, on September 4th, as I watched the Little Rock Nine account in “The Butler,” I felt a bit of deja vu, as I had spent that morning posting about their historical act 56 years ago that day.
While not without its flaws, this film is one of the most thought-provoking and significant black cinematic productions to hit theaters in recent history. Not only because it compels us to look back into our dark national past, but also because it holds a mirror up to the racial tension in our present.