In the darkness of the Independence theater, I kept wondering as the mixed-race audience applauded during “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” what made this film so different from the 2011 movie “The Help.”
Both focused on African-American domestic workers. “The Help” depicted black women who held housekeeping jobs for white families in the South. “The Butler” is Daniels’ fictionalized story of Eugene Allen, who worked in the White House in 1952 when Harry S. Truman was president and retired in 1986 when Ronald Reagan was commander in chief.
Cecil Gaines, played by Forest Whitaker, is the key character in “The Butler.” He picked up domestic training before fleeing a cotton farm in the brutal South. He learned more on jobs before joining the White House staff.
Oprah Winfrey plays his spouse. They have two sons. The oldest, Louis, goes to Fisk University and joins the civil rights movement. He becomes a Freedom Rider and later a member of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, Calif.
“The Butler” stands far above “The Help” by showing the depth of African-Americans from the perspective of black people. It includes black middle-class families sending their children to college.
“The Help” — told by a white woman — shares the oral histories of black female domestics. The blacks in “The Help” are depicted as mostly helpless to change their circumstances.
“The Help” followed a well-worn Hollywood pattern of whites as central, heroic characters in stories about people of color. Examples include “Glory,” “Dances with Wolves” and “Mississippi Burning” — as if films about minorities wouldn’t attract large audiences.
“The Butler” proves that notion wrong. It has remained a box office hit.
“The Butler” was told by an African-American and showed how black people affected the nation’s history from the streets to the Oval Office. The film captures the dignity of service of the White House black domestic staff.
A subplot involves tension between Gaines, his spouse and their oldest son over Gaines’ work as a butler. Gaines couldn’t understand why his son participated in the civil rights movement, was beaten, jailed and eventually joined the Panthers.
However, the presidents that Gaines served in the film picked up a better understanding of the trauma African-Americans faced by knowing him and being aware of what his sons endured.
The younger son, who died in the Vietnam War, said before he went into the service that unlike his brother, he wanted to fight for his country instead of against it. The war, racism and civil rights roiled the black community. Politically, “The Butler” showed that African-Americans were far from thinking and behaving alike.
“The Butler” is far better than “The Help” because of its focus on African-American men. Black men were mostly missing in “The Help.” When they did appear, they were shown as drunks, abusive to hard-working women or absent altogether.
Cuba Gooding Jr., who also plays a White House butler, adds levity to the film, and stark family realism grips Oprah’s character, who was an alcoholic and had an affair. But “The Butler” overall explained the silent, nonpolitical posture that African-Americans in domestic jobs had to take to maintain their employment.
The film exposes the deliberation by Eisenhower before he decided to send troops into Arkansas to integrate schools. And it depicts the polish of John Kennedy, how he had to get behind the civil rights movement and how his assassination affected the country.
The movie made Ronald Reagan likeable. He enabled black White House staffers to finally get equal pay.
In the end, Cecil, who retired during Reagan’s presidency, saw Barack Obama elected president and got to meet Obama at the White House. It was a fitting end to a good movie, which the audience applauded throughout.