As long time readers of the faculty lounge may recall, I rarely see first run movies, but I make an exception when they relate to slavery or Jim Crow. And so The Butler fits within that exception. I had the chance to see it recently with a couple of friends who are historians. I enjoyed it, but I wonder about what to make of "The Butler." The movie begins with "The Butler" (Cecil Gaines) as a child seeing his father shot and killed in a cotton field by a young white man who'd just assaulted Cecil's mother; he then is taken from the field into the house of the white plantation owner and trained as a domestic servant. That sets him on a journey, first to North Carolina to work in a hotel and then to DC and -- after giving a sufficiently subservient answer to a hotel patron's question about what should be done in response to Chief Justice Warren's call for integration -- a job in the White House. Along the way he became a favorite butler to presidents from Ike to Reagan.
A lot of the story is about Gaines' relationship with his oldest son, who makes the journey from Freedom Rider to Black Panther, to anti-apartheid activist, then, ultimately, to Congress. A lot of Gaines' life is spent waiting on presidents and studiously avoiding political controversy. He seems to support a young Richard Nixon, for instance. It's only later in life that Gaines goes through his son's belongings and sees a copy of Manning Marable's Race, Reform, and Rebellion (sort of odd here, because the book was published in 1984, so the timing's a little off -- but what the heck) and a copy of one his son's mug shots. (The son was arrested numerous times at civil rights protests.) At this point Gaines realizes that his son, who earlier had called him an Uncle Tom, had been courageous and maybe even correct. Gaines himself ends up getting arrested in a protest at the South African Embassy and then, some years later, voting for Barack Obama.
Now, Brando Starkey is certainly the expert in Uncle Tom around these parts, but I wonder what to make of Gaines' character. Did he have more to do with the historic Uncle Tom -- someone who served but undermined the system of slavery -- or maybe with the grandfather in Invisible Man who yes-sired the white people to death? Gaines maybe is like enslaved people in the old South who appeared faithful but would undermine slavery when given a clear opportunity.
Then again, one of my friends who saw it with me (who happens to be one of the most distinguished historians of African American intellectual history in operation today) wondered if Gaines is instead a representative of conservative African Americans who made a political transition in the 1980s. I think she's probably right.