What ‘The Butler’ Gets Right

The film captures the rarely discussed schism within black families over the struggle for civil rights.

Forest Whitaker and David Oyelowo in Lee Daniels' The Butler (The Weinstein Co.)
Forest Whitaker and David Oyelowo in Lee Daniels' The Butler (The Weinstein Co.)

The black community never has been and never will be a monolith. Black newspapers called Martin Luther King Jr. a communist when he spoke out against the Vietnam War. Some black businessmen dreaded the dawn of integration, fearing that it would, as it did, destroy the foundation of many black enterprises. The Klan and Southern white powerbrokers could pay a black informant as little as $300 for tips and information that resulted in the death of someone active in the movement.

Back then I got loud and proud as a student at American University. I worked with the Black Student Union, volunteered “in the community” with Marion Barry’s Pride Inc. and raised money for a local “freedom school.” My heart nearly broke as I watched the scenes in the film of bitter conflict between father and son and mother and son over politics and pride. I remembered the mocking jokes of some of my family members at summer picnics — “Come here, Marita, and shake some of that black power on my hot dog.”

My father forced me to get rid of my Afro and told me that the only color that mattered to him was green. When I wrote a letter to my minister uncle to explain what this new angry quest for identity and justice meant, he refused to open the letter and instead tore it up and threw it back at me.

I, too, was vain and arrogant as only a youth can be when I told my mother, in another of the seemingly endless arguments about politics, “We won’t make any progress until your entire generation dies off.” There is a moment in the film when Gloria (Winfrey) breathlessly, angrily reminds her son, who displays an arrogance designed to best and belittle his father, that “everything you have and everything you are is because of that butler.”

My parents did not live to witness my career as a writer, whose work has been so deeply entwined with the defining moments of the political and cultural changes of the ’60s. We may have disagreed about many things, but I, too, know that everything I am and every word I write is because of my parents — the father who, as my first writing teacher, told me bedtime stories about Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, and the mother who told me one day that I was going to write a book.  

So much of what makes this film a must-see is its nuanced portrayal of the life that Cecil Gaines lives outside the walls of the White House; he loves a son whose choices he cannot fathom and a wife to whom he gives everything but himself.  

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is essentially the story not just of one man but of a family that witnesses history, as all families do. This is the story of how we make history with brave, bold decisions and with small moments when we simply can’t take it anymore. We are all children and the creators of history. History is our past, our families, our love, our loyalty, our faith. We are all Cecil Gaines. We are all the butler.

Editor’s note: For another perspective on Lee Daniels’ The Butler, read Natalie Hopkinson’s review “A Transformative Film ‘The Butler’ Is Not.”

Marita Golden is the author of more than a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction. She is president emeritus of the Hurston/Wright Foundation.