The Butler is based on the true story of Cecil Gaines (this name in the movie is fictional) and his oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) as they take different paths during the 60’s civil rights movement. Perhaps the biggest problem with this dual storyline is that even though Cecil is the main character, I was much more interested in Louis. When we first meet Louis, he’s a child thankful for this father’s privileged job in the White House. He grows into a young idealist who passively resists segregation by joining the Freedom Riders. Then assertively resists as a Martin Luther King disciple. Next he aggressively resists with the Black Panthers, then moves on to politics as an adult. Louis’ dynamic story is heavily influenced and shaped by the social waves around him. He discovers who he is and what he’s meant to be. Cecil, on the other hand, is a static character who remains the same for most of the film. We’re supposed to connect with Cecil; it’s the main character’s job, but if the main character never takes risks, fails, and grows, an audience will find it hard to be emotionally invested in him. The conflict in Cecil’s character is dependent on another character and not the situations around him. Cecil simply reacts to his son’s development. It’s like watching the original Star Wars about Luke’s journey learning the ways of the Force, but from Obi-Wan’s perspective.
In the afterward of his fiction anthology Full Dark, No Stars, Stephen King says that some stories are about extraordinary characters in ordinary situations, and others are about ordinary characters in extraordinary situations. The Butler successfully explores this contrast with the worlds Cecil and Louis live in. Louis and his college friends are ordinary nobodies, but they are still interesting because they are in the thick of national chaos, swimming in the sea of change. Cecil’s story is filled with high-class extraordinary people who do boring things; they make decisions, hold meetings, and eat dinner. They aren’t interesting because of what they do, but because of who they are, both as characters and as actors who portray them. This is shown by shoving as many famous actors as possible into the political roles, including, but not limited to, Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, Mariah Carey as Hattie Pearl, and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Extraordinary celebrities playing boring and brief characters.
The film contrasts the two ways of approaching social conflict. In Cecil’s generation, the best way to deal with racism is to keep your head down and not make waves. This is reinforced by his personal history where the only time his father makes the slightest gesture that could be mistaken for making a wave, gets him murdered. Louis, on the other hand, takes various approaches to oppose racism; he feels the need to act while keeping to the moral code he was raised under. One interesting scene hosts a montage that jumps between Cecil serving the White House staff and Louis sitting in the “white” section of a diner waiting to be served. Cecil serves delicacies on a silver platter, and the local patrons rub the food in Louis’ face and hair for sitting in the wrong section. The guests at the White House scarcely acknowledge Cecil’s presence, and Louis‘ presence offends the patrons of the diner.
Is either Cecil or Louis wrong in how they react to segregation? No. There is a time for peaceful resistance and a time for submissiveness. The Bible doesn’t address how Babylon thought of their Jewish slaves, but from the story of the lion’s den we know that others tried to use his heritage against him. Daniel resisted by not giving in to ungodly laws the king made, yet he still served the king better than anyone else in the king’s court. If you merge Cecil and Louis, you get a complete picture of a Christlike character in action.