“Lee Daniel’s The Butler” is a fictionalized adaptation of an article published in the Washington Post in 2008 ["A Butler Well Served by This Election,” The Washington Post, November 7, 2008], following the historic election of the first African-American to be president of the United States. While the film is heavily fictionalized – in fact, the relationship between Cecil Gaines and his son Louis, which provides much of the film’s conflict, is entirely made-up, as “Louis” never existed – it does present an interesting portrait of the generational divide impacting the African-American community during the height of the Civil Rights era. The character of Louis (in real-life, Eugene Allen had one son, Charles, who survived his tour in Vietnam; the film depicts Eugene/Cecil as losing a son in that war) exists to provide both pathos as father and son eventually come together and to provide added drama to a film already inherently dramatic given its subject. By injecting the character of Louis into the film, the film’s writer and director can illuminate the contrast between young Cecil’s relationship with his father on the plantation and older Cecil’s relationship with his son during the period when blacks were actively agitating for civil rights.
This contrast between the early-20th Century Gaines family and the one that served eight presidents is displayed early in the film when the white plantation supervisor Thomas Westfall rapes Cecil’s mother and then murders his father. Cecil is depicted as meekly submitting to the indignities and accepting as a fait accompli the brutalization of his parents. Later, after Cecil has been hired to work in the White House, that meekness is met with hostility by the rebellious Louis, angry at his father’s continued submission to white domination:
Cecil: You need to go.
Cecil: Get the hell out!
Louis: Oh, I'm sorry, Mr. Butler. I didn't mean to make fun of your hero!
“Lee Daniel’s The Butler,” by opening with the humiliations and brutalizations inherent in plantation life in the American South and following as its protagonist observes the growing and occasionally militant civil rights movement from the vantage of the White House shows the changing dynamics between African-American fathers and sons, as the latter assume the mantle of rebellion while the former, accustomed to being subordinated to white society, initially shies away from open confrontation. By first showing the conflict between father and son regarding Louis’ active role in the Civil Rights movement and later portraying the father’s acceptance and open support of the son’s activities, the filmmakers emphasize the role reversals that have transpired, and the degree of mutual respect that has grown between the two, as when Louis displays concern for his father’s status when Cecil openly supports his son’s activities:
Louis: You'll get arrested, you'll lose your job.
Cecil: I lost you.
Cecil has learned to appreciate his son’s political activism and social awareness, and has questioned his own submission to the indignities inherent in a life spent serving whites while his own people have been subject to discrimination. White racism undermined black manhood, the film suggests, while efforts to combat that racism brought dignity to the African-American community, and built stronger ties between fathers and sons. The validity of such suggestions is left to the viewer to determine.