Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Butler

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on September 23, 2013


“The Butler” is a flawed, but interesting movie, continuing to hold my deep interest in racial tensions in the United States. In particular, the portrayal of the father/son ambivalence is the most moving, as each black male, struggles to fit into a white society, yet manifests this struggle in opposing ways. Cecil, the father, conforms to his role as a servant, paid less than his white colleagues, but still maintaining a salary which allows for a middle class family life. Louis, the son, fights the place of black people in society through non-violent, then violent, then political means. Cecil sees Louis’ choice as a betrayal for everything he worked so hard to have for his family. Louis sees his father as giving in to the power of the white folk. As an audience member, I could see that they were both right, but the strength of their beliefs prevented them from having any empathy for the other, while at the same time, they both seemed to be sentient beings. There is a clear Oedipal rivalry here, with Louis trying to gain his mother’s love by trailing a different path from her husband, who worked long hours, leaving Gloria feeling lonely and abandoned. Louis reacted in a way which caused grief in his father who, we see early in the movie, never had one. This trans-generational experience, of seeing each father, hoping that his son charts a better path, but then realizing that what better means, is not clear, at all. This father/son relationship, set in the midst of a groundswell of civil rights movements, is a timeless experience of seeing how parenting brings up the core need for the child to justify the parent’s existence, in a way, that the parent, not the child, defines. This important thread could have been more robust, but even so, it got me thinking, and for that, I am glad I saw it.

4 Responses to “The Butler”

  1. Jon said

    Yes, there is a strong tension between father and son in Cecil and Louis. Yes, they where both right in their approaches, as it requires a multipronged attach on the insidious problem of racial injustice that has plagued this country (along with many other countries). While the tension between Cecil and Louis can easily be seen as Oedipal, what do you make of the relationship between Cecil and his father?

    • Cecil suffered a traumatic loss, both of his mother and his father, at the same time. My guess is that this created in Cecil a tremendous need for self-reliance, with the rigid belief that his way of overcoming trauma was the only way. As such, he had no tolerance for his son Louis, who needed to separate and find his own way out of the racial hatred of his time. The movie had a shallow depiction of this struggle, but it left me imagining Cecil as a resilient young boy, who becomes a man who is still resilient, but not enough to allow his son to go on his own path. Thanks.

  2. Shelly said

    I haven’t seen the movie, of course, but I wonder about this sentence, “timeless experience of seeing how parenting brings up the core need for the child to justify the parent’s existence, in a way, that the parent, not the child, defines.” Can you expand upon this a little? Since when do parents need to explain their existence to their children? Why do we need to justify how we make our livings to our kids? Do you mean that children are shocked, sometimes, to realize that our lives, even though may center around our children, friendships, careers, community, religion, other things also may play roles in the our lives too other than just the children?

    • I do not think that parents need to explain their existence to their children, but I do think they need to have a broad view of the world which enables children to find their own path, even if it directly contradicts the path their parents have chosen. It is hard to support a child who does not share one’s value system, but this is the challenge of parenting, provided that the child is not harming himself. In the case of Louis, it was particularly tricky, as he placed himself in situations which could have made him a tragic victim of a hate crime. Thanks.

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