A number of films about the civil rights movement are in various stages of development. The first out of the gate will be “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” which stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, an African American man born a sharecropper’s son in Georgia, who comes to Washington in the 1950s and eventually serves eight U.S. presidents as a White House butler. (The film is based on a Washington Post article written by Wil Haygood in 2008.)
Directed by Daniels and featuring a cavalcade of stars in cameo roles, “The Butler” largely focuses on Gaines’s family life and interactions with the presidential families he serves. But it also chronicles the burgeoning movement taking shape on the streets far beyond 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
While Gaines silently observes Dwight D. Eisenhower grappling with school desegregation, Lyndon B. Johnson preparing to sign the 1965 voting rights act and Richard M. Nixon plotting against the Black Panthers, his son Louis (David Oyelowo) is sitting in at a Nashville lunch counter, joining the Freedom Riders, crossing paths with Martin Luther King Jr. and eventually joining the Panthers himself.
Similar scenes have been portrayed as backdrops or perfunctory montages in previous films. But “The Butler,” which arrives in theaters Friday, is the first major feature film to capture the full sweep and scope of the civil rights movement, including its global reverberations. (Gaines retires during the administration of Ronald Reagan, who is seen vetoing sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime.) For that reason, if “The Butler” does well at the box office, projects about the same era that have been stalled over the past several years may find renewed momentum. Conversely, should the film flop, some of Hollywood’s most pernicious myths — most pointedly that there are not wide audiences for historical dramas in general and black films in particular — will become all the more entrenched.
“Yikes,” said Daniels, who visited Washington last week, when he considered “The Butler” as a cinematic and cultural bellwether. Upon reflection, however, it’s a burden he was happy to accept. “If it opens the doors for other civil rights films and African American dramas, right on,” he said. “That’s a great thing. Anything to help the cause.”
At least four major film or television projects about the civil rights movement are in the works: DreamWorks is developing an untitled Martin Luther King Jr. biopic. “Memphis,” about King’s final days and the hunt for his assassin, is back on track with director Paul Greengrass and producer Scott Rudin after being dropped by Universal Pictures in 2011. Director Ava DuVernay is preparing to direct “Selma,” about the 1965 voting rights campaign (a film that Daniels himself once intended to direct). And “America: In the King Years,” based on Taylor Branch’s trilogy of civil rights books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Parting the Waters,” is in development as a seven-part mini-series at HBO.