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.