'The Butler': Lifting the Veil on Black Life

The film, which may spark a real conversation on race, truly captures how we live behind closed doors.

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In the case of the generation that came of age in the 1950s and '60s, these normal generational conflicts grafted themselves onto larger political changes both between the races and more especially within the race, in ways never seen quite so dramatically before in the history of the African-American people. Remember, the concept of being an "Uncle Tom" is only as old as the early 20th century (as Adena Spingarn's pioneering scholarship revealed), and it was made popular by Marcus Garvey in his bitter, bitter feud with W.E.B. Du Bois.

Never before the '60s had the concept of race betrayal, as a reflection of generational difference, entered the family. We all -- those of our generation -- remember this and recall how very painful it could be for a child to reject the parent's entire mode of being, his or her raison d'être, as being that of a so-called race traitor. It was a horrible aspect of the black power movement, and we shouldn't pretend that it didn't happen when telling our history, or sentimentalize how nasty and pernicious it was. It was one of the low points in the internal history of our people.

The Film Captures the Generational Divide

The Butler dramatizes the complexity of this phenomenon and this larger period within the race with stunning effectiveness. In fact, the most amazing thing, to me, about this film is the uncanny way that Strong's screenplay and Daniels' direction managed to get the black "voice" right. This film is like overhearing conversations in all-black venues, whether at the kitchen table, in the barbershop or beauty parlor or around the card table, playing whist all night long in extended games of "rise and fly." The film, at its best, is the best intraracial history of what it was like being black in the '50s and '60s that I can remember seeing; the best account of relations within the race, both on personal and larger political levels, and how these, inevitably, interact with each other.

A few delightfully wrought and executed scenes come to mind: when the butler's wife, Gloria Gaines (Oprah Winfrey), slaps her son for insulting his father for being just "a butler" (read: an Uncle Tom) and then summarily expels both him and his rude girlfriend from their home; when Gloria, in a powerful scene near the climax of the film, wonders if her daughter-in-law's decision to give her granddaughter an "African" name is meant to be an insult against her; when a character cracks to a fellow card player not to funk up his bathroom; and when one of the White House butlers bends over and whispers the word "motherf--ker" in Cecil Gaines' (Forest Whitaker) ear as he sits in black tie at a state dinner, perhaps the first time a butler was ever so invited.

In all of these scenes, we experience the powerful recognition of the truth and reality of the black experience within the human condition -- experiences that, in one way or another, we have all had; experiences that need to be shared and dramatized, without embarrassment or self-censorship. I also applaud the film for de-sentimentalizing the Gaineses' marriage by including a subplot of Mrs. Gaines' episode of infidelity.

This is the stuff -- the raw material -- of art. Far too often our artists -- especially filmmakers, I think -- make black characters speak as if they were making the case to skeptical white people that we are as fundamentally intelligent and as inherently dignified as we, within the race, know our people to be. And the results of falling into that trap can be hollow-sounding -- didactic and propagandistic; words that no feeling, human being actually speaks to another human being; words or patterns of behavior that don't ring true. The Butler deftly avoids this pitfall and is a model for how the black experience can be represented in all of its dimensions, showing us at our best and our worst, but always at our most human.

In the end, as a scholar, I loved this movie for the easily digestible way it narrates three quarters of a century of African-American history in an entertaining and accurate way. If The Butler is widely seen, and I hope it will be, this is a most effective way to begin that long and subtle process of engaging America in that "conversation about race" that we all so deeply understand this country would do almost anything to avoid. Lee Daniels and Danny Strong are to be commended for collaborating on a magnificent achievement, creating a film in which history so refreshingly breathes.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.