Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker)
I, Too, Sing America
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
The “darker brothers “and sisters have burst out of the kitchen, and they have arrived strong and beautiful on the doorstep of The White House in Lee Daniels’ impressive film The Butler. The film calls up a history that can be traced back to the time when the prevailing plantation system meant that the enslaved cut and hauled each stone to build that house; that George Washington would bring his enslaved servants, Ona “Oney” Maria Judge and Hercules to it (both eventually escaped); that Paul Jennings, President James Madison’s servant/slave would come; that Elizabeth Keckley would be modiste to First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and William Slade, President Lincoln’s butler; and, finally, that Eugene Allen, the butler on whose life the film is based, would join them in a history proving that the African American has had and continues to have an intimate relationship with The White House, our national home.
Daniels firmly holds on to his dramatization of the socio-cultural and racial dynamics as he moves the butler, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), through his thirty-four years in the White House. Who would have predicted, however, that the elegance of domestic science would sashay out and rise as the star of the film! The conventions of manners, grace, and poise within the national home reign supreme, and they are invigorating. As the tea cups, water glasses, dinner plates, silverware and cloth napkins are set and folded respectfully by the hand of each butler, one cannot help but think of Booker Taliaferro Washington, who also thrust a long arm into the presidential suite throughout his career. Say what you will about Washington’s philosophy on and his praise of industrial education, the former slave-turned-consummate educator and founder of the esteemed Tuskegee Institute (1881) understood all too well the attractive art of domestic science and its “neatness and system”. In Working with the Hands, the sequel to his autobiography Up From Slavery, for instance, Washington discovers that seeing the artistry in the product of his manual labor cultivates a positive sense of self. After surveying the results of his handiwork in grounds-keeping while in the service of Mrs. Viola Ruffner, his most exacting white employer, Washington proclaims,
when I saw and realised that all this was a creation of my own hands, my whole nature began to change. I felt a self-respect, an encouragement, and a satisfaction I had never before enjoyed or thought possible. Above all else, I had acquired a new confidence in my ability actually to do things and to do them well. (9).
Booker T. Washington
The Hampton Normal and Agricultural School in Virginia (later Hampton Institute) nourished Washington’s self-respect as the school attended his book-learning with its practical industrial education curriculum. At Hampton, Washington learned grounds-keeping, iron and woodwork, cooking, agriculture, personal cleanliness and protocols in behavior. The industrial arts , later to be called Shop Class and Home Economics, then enjoyed an easy collaboration with liberal arts education–that is until, I would surmise, the national effort to integrate public schools in the 1970s. There was a push to focus college/university degrees in the liberal arts, or what Washington labeled “mental and religious education”. This change, unfortunately, shoved to the side the industrial arts such as cabinetmaking and carpentry; mechanical drawing and brickmasonry; dressmaking and tailoring; and welding and mechanic. Almost overnight, “satisfaction inspired by the sight of a perfectly made bed,” and “pillows placed […] at the right angle, and edges of the sheets turned over” became, it seems, anathema to Black progress. (11). Shop Class and Home Economics, then, began their slow but sure decline.
Eugene Allen serves President Gerald Ford and guests at The White House
Fortunately, The Butler remembers, with deference, the craftsman who works with his hands, and he stands proud along with the iconic Pullman Porter and Chauffeur. Central to The Butler is the acknowledgement of three fundamental components essential for the success of a craftsman’s training: First, expertise for the butler, acquiring an appreciation for etiquette; second, apprenticeship, to hone the craftsman’s skills; and, finally, teachers with an ardent investment in student learning. The African American male and the white mistress, notably, tutor Gaines, and their tutelage produces The Butler, a precise craftsman bearing grace and confidence.
We have watched African American women pass down this legacy in Jonathan Demme’s Beloved and, more recently, Tate Taylor’s The Help. We have heard Oprah Winfrey testify to Diane Sawyer on ABCNews.com’s Person of the Week, “I am the daughter of a maid; my mother was a maid; my grandmother was a maid” to draw attention to the women in her family who worked with their hands in white households. The Butler puts front and center this same legacy in the African American male and his apprenticeship in domestic science.
The scenes between 10-year-old Cecil (Isaac White) and his father Earl (David Banner) in the cotton fields; 15-year-old Cecil (Aml Ameen) and the aged plantation mistress Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave); and Cecil and Maynard, the dessert shop servant, (Clarence Williams III) are stirring illustrations of mentorship across lines of gender and race.
Mistress Wentworth (Vanessa Redgrave) and the making of The Butler
Let us move to a Georgia cotton field. Earl teaches Cecil how to pick the best cotton, using his hands to demonstrate the details of that labor. It is a lesson wrapped in humor: “Now you know the cotton is ready when the bud splits and the bowl is star shaped, like a big old star in the sky–like your big ol’ head!” After a traumatic event in the cotton field, Mistress Annabeth “promotes” Cecil to the big house. There, she instructs him on the rules of perfect service, which, for certain, would cause Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to holler from the underground when he hears her first rule, “[Be] quiet when you’re serving,” and go on to say, “I don’t even want to hear you breathe. The room should feel empty when you enter it.”
Maynard (Clarence Williams III) coaches Cecil
Upon his “graduation” from the plantation to the city, Maynard tutors Gaines on how to serve white patrons: “Slow down; better to look at their eyes—see what it is they want; see what it is they need. Anticipate.” From the cotton fields to the big house to high society, Cecil’s discipline and pride in his work stand him ready to enter into his national home. Because we have seen him in these contexts, we feel such pride when Gaines announces himself at the White House gate, “I’m Cecil Gaines; I’m the new butler.”
The job is prestigious, but the national, political and the personal domestic spheres inevitably clash. The negotiations Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and Gaines have to make to maintain their marriage, home, and parenthood are engrossing to watch. Secrecy and curiosity, no doubt, infiltrate their household. Gaines has access to the most highly classified information in the world: that requires the confidence to practice discretion. Gloria polishes her respect for this aspect of her husband’s job yet, understandably, yearns to see inside of the White House. This exclusion eventually takes its toll on Gloria. On notification of the Kennedy assassination from her husband, she retorts, “I’m really sorry about the President, I really am. But you and that White House can kiss my ass!”
Lee Daniels marks how an ordinary man who is educated on a Georgia plantation navigates the verbal and emotional restrictions required by his extraordinary job. This kind of control takes reserve; and, more important, respect for the gravity of one’s place. In all, The Butler pays homage to African American males in domestic service and to those who teach them. In the process, the filmmaker bestows honor on the hands that cleaned the china and polished the silver; that ironed the sheets to make the beds; and that prepared meals and served every one of them with dignity and style. The greater tribute, though, extends to the hands of every enslaved African American who hoisted the stones to build the house that President Barack Obama and family now live in. They, too, are singing America!
A special ‘thank you’ to Professor Emeritus Robert Haller (UNL) for lending his expertise in syntax.
Watch for in-depth Film • Television • & More reviews & commentary.
In the meantime, Catch a film … Share the Popcorn … Feed Your Soul!