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On 'Lee Daniels' The Butler'

A common description for a film like Lee Daniels’ The Butler, one that attempts to define eras and relate a certain message, is “Oscar bait”. Just as Schindler’s List took one narrative and used it as a backdrop to tell the story of the Holocaust, Lee Daniels’ The Butler takes the story of an ordinary African-American family involved in an extraordinary occupation to tell the story of the civil rights era in America. Also, just as Schlindler’s List was considered “Oscar bait” from the moment Spielberg began casting, Lee Daniels’ The Butler has been so considered since Oprah Winfrey came on board.

It’s a bit of a blunt phrase and one that can put a film into an overachieving niche, but it’s also a phrase that implies ambition. A movie seen as “Oscar bait” is one that a movie studio itself views as a film deserving that term, the kind that can bring accolades and prestige to the company that pushes it forward. Because of their immediate prestigious status, a certain cultural weight is added to these movies. They are often advertised as serious, important, and rich in suggested social commentary – and equally derided as agenda-pushing attempts by those adverse to the commentary present.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is the apex of this kind of film thus far into 2013, and because of its historically relevant content relative to our country’s recent past, it has transcended the simplicity of The King’s Speech-level Oscar bait to a widely seen movie capable of energizing a sorely needed debate. Lee Daniels’ The Butler may indeed be Oscar bait, but it has also revived essential re-examinations of vital events that shaped the evolution of history and basic rights in this country.

Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark decision that the film highlights as essential to both America’s change and the main character’s understanding of his world, is key to the film’s plot. The decision, reached in 1954 by a 9-0 vote of the Earl Warren court, led to the eventual contentious desegregation battles fought out in schools across the South and other parts of the country.

The film highlights the fallout of this law in 1957 from the perspective of Cecil Gaines, the movie’s protagonist and newly appointed White House butler. Gaines has just entered the service when he encounters the deliberations of then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower. Gaines serves Eisenhower as the president considers what should be done about the militant behavior of Arkansan governor Orval Faubus. Against the president’s wishes, Faubus has blocked the Court ordered integration of a Little Rock public high school. This choice forces the hand of Eisenhower, and pushes him towards a decision that would make a statement for many years to come.

The portrayal of Eisenhower in the film is an interesting one, and perhaps contains some symbolism for the consciousness of the American people at the time. Eisenhower, as portrayed by Robin Williams, appears reticent to act, and while annoyed by the actions of Arkansas’ governor, is unsure of himself and what exactly is expected of him. He seems aware of the problem, opposed to the actions of the governor and in favor of carrying out federal law, but full of trepidation at the prospect of actually acting.

As Eisenhower laments that the state governor won’t make this easy for him and just follow the Federal Court decision that allows for desegregation, we garner a sense of underwhelming indecision, a sense that seems palpable to Cecil as he gazes forward. But we gain an almost equal sense of relief and justice as Eisenhower finally accepts that federal action is warranted, that the legal and correct thing must be done, messy and difficult as it may be for him to bear in the face of a divided, angry public. Perhaps it is the military background of President Eisenhower that results in his decisive action in Little Rock. There is a chain of command and the Court had made it clear that its Order must be followed.

While the overall behavior of Eisenhower is not triumphed as a keen and overwhelming display of heroism and bravery, he is shown as a president who has no choice but to act, no choice but to help, uncomfortable as it may be. Eisenhower was no activist desperate for change, but he was a veteran leader who recognized when he no longer could wait, when preserving both Federal law and the country’s inherent undercurrent of progression became the only real choice a leader and a person of impactful purpose could make.

It is the nuance that is observed in characters that make them human. When faced with difficult choices, characters are considered through the nature of decisions that forsake or embrace comfort – and these considerations separate Lee Daniels’ The Butler from typical awards’ fare. The film tackles several moral and racial issues in quick succession and in a manner which some may not agree, but ultimately where it unifies our minds is in its examinations of important decisions.

The decisions of Cecil Gaines, towards family and work and eventually progress for his family, are shown to be full of purpose. The decisions of the men he served during a tumultuous period are not always so purposeful, but in the case of Eisenhower’s decision to enforce Brown v. Board of Education, some purpose is certainly achieved. While his motivations are often unclear in the film, Eisenhower does make a decision – not because it is comfortable, not because partisan lines back it, but because it is right, because it is the only choice a person of positive motivation could make when faced by so much conflict.

The film does not ask us to celebrate Eisenhower, but it does ask us to weigh his decision and the results of such choices. Had Eisenhower done nothing, and waited for some eventual reprieve, there may have been some temporary comfort for him to enjoy, but such a reprieve would have damaged the function of his office and the function of this country in a highly regressive way. And so while we cannot know what motivated Eisenhower exactly, we can judge the result of his action – the integration of schools and the beginnings of the civil rights movement - on their own merits, and hope that, 50 years later, we can still have the courage to act in the name of advancing justice and law, no matter what toll it may take on our sense of temporary comfort.

The Warren Court, with a 9-0 ruling, lit the lamp of hope for an entire race in America. The Civil Rights movement was already under way, but no one can doubt that such a decisive statement, from an undivided Supreme Court, was fuel on the flames of movement ready to explode. Black Americans had been oppressed under the vicious and wrong-headed decision of Plessy v Ferguson (‘separate but equal’) for far too long. Only a strong and decisive voice could right that legal wrong. What started out as minor (in the hopes of gaining better bus service to schools) and frivolous (the Plessy decision had been the established legal precedent for nearly 60 years in America) became a clarion call for justice, a justice not yet fulfilled, but no longer outright denied.

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