English 345 Blog Post #6 (The Butler)

As we’ve discussed, genre cycles emerge based on historically-specific communal needs (and to make $$$).  Lee Daniels’s The Butler (2013) is an Obama-era historical drama that seems out-of-date in 2021.  Can you think of more recent historical dramas that seem closer to our era as it pertains to race and history?  What makes those films products of today?  Have the topics in The Butler instead gone toward other genres?

17 thoughts on “English 345 Blog Post #6 (The Butler)

  1. I recently watched Antebellum (2020) and I couldn’t help but think about it while watching The Butler. The two films are, of course, very different. The genre (thriller vs. drama), the tone (threatening vs. serious), and realism (a film inspired by a true story vs. a modern view on history with a twist). The Butler tells the history of African Americans through one man’s life while Antebellum tells the history of African Americans through modern times. Antebellum is a far angrier film than The Butler. The Butler had a largely optimistic look on race in America while Antebellum highlights how the past lives on and how black Americans are still affected by slavery, segreation, and racism. I think both films are fantastic and both genres work for the theme. The Butler evokes so much sadness and Antebellum evokes so much fear. Considering thriller/horror movies are becoming more popular film genres, it is fitting that the topics in The Butler be explored in movies such as Antebellum.

  2. One film that comes to mind is Hidden Figures. This film is based on African American women working for NASA in a segregated group based on race and sex. The plot follows Katherine Johnson, along with her colleagues Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn who work for NASA using their mathematical skills in 1961 during the space race. This film is both similar and different from The Butler as it shows African American workers during a time where they were discriminated against but in different fields and different genders. As African American women, they faced harder discrimination and segregation in the workplace. This ties into modern history. Today, African American women face challenges in their daily lives. Although the laws that were in place during the era of Hidden Figures are gone, there are still those who have prejudices and hate that set time back. In today’s time, African American men and women face discrimination in the workplace and even when trying to find a job in the first place.

  3. I had trouble thinking of a movie that could compare well with the butler quite honestly, but “Fences” does come to mind from 2016. It is also about a Black man and his family and takes place in the 1950’s. Though “The Butler” generally portrays Black peoples’ progress and the Civil Rights Movement, “Fences” focuses more on one family and their internal problems, which are reflective of the bleaker societal picture painted of society (Pittsburgh). One interesting way that the movies are similar is that they heavily focus on the father-son relationship between two of the main characters, and there is high tension in both cases. While the tension is resolved in both, it occurs in different ways and “Fences” (not a true story) ends in a way that leaves the viewer considering the reality of the lives of the characters. Alternatively, “The Butler” ends more happily with Cecil and Louis together watching Obama win, which is distinctly more positive. “Fences” feels more telling of the time because of the tragic and difficult events over recent years that have more than proven that racism is still alive and kicking, and the entire darker narrative of “Fences” is driven by the idea that both the father and son have limited opportunities due to their being Black in the ’50s.

  4. I think one example of a more recent film that is related to The Butler was Blackkklansman. Blackkklansman follows Ron Stallworth, who is hired as the first black officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department. The main storyline follows him as he speaks repeatedly with the Grand Wizard, and recruits his white co-worker to act as him and meet with members of the Ku Klux Klan, all while Ron is the one speaking during the phone calls.

    I think one thing that makes this film a product of today is that the story is relevant. Around the time when this film was released hate groups were in the news. One example was the Charlottesville Car Attack during the Unite the Right Rally in 2017 . Blackkklansman was actually released in the US one day after the anniversary of this event.

    I think that the topics of race and history in The Butler have gone towards other genres such as biographical films (i.e. Blackkklansman), but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still dramas about similar topics. One example that I am thinking of is Selma.

  5. I do not watch a lot of movies but the most recent historical drama I could think of was Woodlawn (2015). Both The Butler and Woodlawn dealt with desegregation. Woodlawn is about a black football player, Tony Nathan, that goes to a predominantly white school and joins the football team. This film could be a product of today because Tony is sought after by college coaches that want him for his talent, overlooking his race. While Tony is a talented football player that is accepted by his team, coaches, and fans, he still faces racism. Like the scene in The Butler where rioters stand outside the bus burning torches and crosses, a group of men stand outside Tony’s house and lights a cross on fire which is holding up Tony’s jersey. I can see where topics in The Butler have gone into horror genres like Get Out. I recently did a project on Get Out and learned that the film can be an anti-Othello film. In the film Chris deals with racial comments from his girlfriend’s family and friends.

  6. Honestly, I do not have a huge base of films I have seen to pull reference from, but I have seen Hidden Figures (2016), which is slightly more recent than The Butler. Even though it is closer to our era, many of the issues focused on in both films are the same, particularly the push to desegregate schools and public amenities in general. In both films, African Americans find themselves fighting for equal rights, better pay, and leadership opportunities in the workplace. In The Butler, Cecil gains respect in the White House over the years, but he is never promoted or given a raise despite his persistent requests. It is clear that the other White House staff and all the presidents he has worked under valued his service, and, as Martin Luther King Jr. told Louis, Cecil is fighting racism throughout his career by displaying strong work ethic, discipline, and grace, but he never gets to reap the benefits of his impact. The women in Hidden Figures fight many of the same forms of discrimination, compounded upon the inequality faced by women in the work force, particularly in STEM fields, both then and today. Even so, each of them eventually receives promotions and recognition for their work, and their bosses and coworkers who disrespected them in the past take it upon themselves to change their ways. Overall, both films address similar issues and have much the same optimistic attitude looking to the present day, with President Obama recognizing a character from both films (Cecil and Katherine), and to the future. I am sure some even more recent works would paint a less happy picture of the current racial climate of our nation, as it has become obvious in recent years that we have not yet reached the peace and equality these films allude to.

  7. The Butler definitely can seem out of date because of the way the film ends. It paints the situations with race and racism as if they are being solved or at least there is a clear light at the end of the tunnel. Watching this movie today is a little strange because we know that the struggle is far from over, and the Obama presidency did not solve these issues the way the movie shows it to. I don’t watch very many historical dramas, but a few of the more recent ones I can think of still seem to have more of an optimistic look at our future. For example Hidden Figures focuses on many of the same issues of racism and segregation, and it also seems to have a positive message. I believe it’s become more apparent in the past couple years that these issues are not just problems of the past, so it’s really important that these stories are told correctly. A lot of stories regarding race have moved out of the historical drama genre and into more present day stories or films made by black creators. The historical drama genre has a habit of portraying these issues as if they are issues of the past with a happier ending, but many of these issues are still issues to this day which is why many stories regarding the topic of race seem to be moving to different genres that can tell them more effectively.

    • Interesting points. I also wonder how the film’s optimism is complicated further since Lee Daniels (the director of “The Butler”) is African American.

  8. I don’t often watch historical dramas, so I’m unfamiliar with the similarities between recent films made and The Butler. That said, I did watch Get Out, which is a modern time horror/thriller. The issues they deal with in Get Out remind me of The Butler, especially in scenes where Cecil describes how he cannot make eye contact with the people he works for. In Get Out, the idea that African American people are used for physical labor and will do “whatever the White man says” is right on track with slavery and the racism that Cecil experienced during his time in the White House. I think movies like that are made in modern times to bring awareness to oppression, Get Out included. The setting of Get Out is in modern times, yet the main character is still experiencing racist comments and actions throughout the film. This is a call for awareness, similar to The Butler which taught viewers the extent of the inside views on equality. The way The Butler was filmed throughout all those years and through all those presidents was very informative to watch, which is another reason why films like these are important messages to people who are uneducated and/or ignorant to their privilege. Most movies regarding racism are historical dramas, or horror movies because horror makes you uncomfortable, and racism should do the same thing.

  9. I generally don’t watch historical drama, so I can’t really speak on that. However one film I thought is closer to our era in terms of race and history is The Hate U Give. This 2018 movie explores the topic of racism in the police system and the structure of our country through portraying police brutality, a topic that is all too common these days. I think films like the butler are incredibly significant; knowing the history of this country and acknowledging the cruel history that black people have experienced is very important. I think the biggest difference between these two films is that The Butler ends on a note of hope. First Cecil gets a raise, then he attempts to fix his relationship with his son, and the first black president is elected, promising hope for the black community. The Hate U give, however, ends on a much more unresolved note. There’s no promise of an equal future, it just suggests that hopefully people will realize that our society is structurally racist.

  10. The entire time I was watching The Butler I kept thinking how this movie would not be made today. Or I guess I should say this movie would not be made with the same tone. I was doing research when I was watching and realized the year it came out and immediately understood why the tone was so positive about the progress of racism, coming as a product of the Obama presidency. I think this highlights the biggest difference between how race and history are portrayed in recent years. Watching the Butler in 2021 during the Derek Chauvin trials had me questioning the positivity I was seeing on screen. The Butler clearly wanted to highlight how progress and oppression can exist simultaneously. When you compare this positive outlook with events of the last 5 years make it hard to see the progress and it makes sense why we have films like BlacKkKlansman, Get Out, and most recently Judas and the Black Messiah. Things like the Charlottesville rallies in 2017 and an increased awareness for police violence after the death of George Floyd immediately come to mind. It would only make sense for films to reflect a different view of progress in the US in light of the attention these specific events received. These films definitely present a different tone about the progress of racism in our country and, in particularly, BlacKkKlansman and Judas and Black Messiah operate by shining light on events from the past that are eerily similar to events we are living through today. These films seem to show the progress made doesn’t seem to be enough to stop history from repeating itself. In terms of genre it is interesting to consider how two of the films I listed are considered to be black comedies, BlackkKlansman and Get Out. In the 2018 Golden Globe awards Get Out was even nominated as a comedy film. I personally don’t consider comedy the main genres of either of these films and I think a lot of people agree with me. But they do ultimately employ humor throughout and these definitely aren’t the only films in recent years to discuss race using humor, which makes me think about a point made in The Butler; are these movies simply trying to lighten the mood or are we seeing the influence of executives wanting to make sure their films are a commercial success by making the message more palatable for white audiences? I think it says something when even Jordan Peele was shocked that his movie was considered by the industry to be a comedy.

  11. Another historical drama that comes to mind is Selma (2014). Also, based off of some digging, it seems Lee Daniels was also set to take on Selma before he was replaced by Ava DuVernay. Both of these films focus in on the civil rights movement in different ways. The Butler (2013) portrays history and the civil rights movement through the life and experiences of one man over a longer period of time, and Selma focuses in on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and the historical events in Selma, AL and around the Voting Right Act in 1965. The Butler shows how Cecil’s family and himself live through the changes in racial equality and politics, for example, his son becoming involved in the civil rights movement and participating in sit ins. Selma, centers on events such as the church bombing, and the marches from Selma to Montgomery, AL. The Butler shows a wider timeline in history, and Selma focuses on one specific period of time. Both of these films, however, serve to remind us of the history of racial relations in this country, and especially resonates now as people are becoming aware of how racial inequality is still very much present today.

  12. Admittedly, I’m not that big a fan of historical pieces, and thus, haven’t seen a lot of period dramas in general, but if I could compare The Butler (2013) to any other film I’ve seen (although admittedly, hadn’t finished yet due to time constraints)—I’d say it’s a wonderful compare-and-contrast double-feature with Hidden Figures from 2016. Both are, speaking in the most general terms, stories of black people trying to make it through the racism that dominates American society—most notably in the job market. There are very notable differences between the productions though, that set them apart: TB is something of a family drama reflecting the generational discourse surrounding racism between a father and son, while HD is a biopic ensemble focusing on the struggles of three incredibly influential black women who were essential in the 1960s Space Race. Both films have something of an optimistic tone in spite of the racism that the main characters face—although TB’s ending reads far more bittersweet in spite of the obvious optimism of both the main characters and Lee Daniels himself, at the election of a black president; there is an uncomfortable tension with the film ending on that note—it’s never plainly stated that “racism is over because of Obama” but it can be interpreted that way given when the film was released and the end glossing over any other instance of racial protest or systematic injustice once Cecil starts seeing eye-to-eye with Louis. The way the film paints violent protest as automatically being in the wrong and Louis only being “redeemed” when he repents from the Black Panther Movement in favor of peaceful protest can leave a sour taste in the mouth of audiences today. Hidden Figures isn’t all that much better, from what I’ve seen—it was another “loosely based on a true story” released during the prime of Oscar season with a star-studded cast and was written by a white man, so naturally, it’s unsurprising to see the racism of the time considerably toned down for the more modern audience’s enjoyment, with plenty of stock sympathetic white characters around as well to help our black leads with the injustice they face in the workplace (the bathroom scene sticks out in my mind at this). There’s a very subtle, “reality sucked back then but be optimistic because things are changing” nature to films like Hidden Figures or The Butler that isn’t seen in more modern-day films that tackle similar issues like racism for radically different genres—such as the 2017 horror film Get Out, just don’t seem to have and I think that’s where the good intentions and inspiring stories of the filmmakers’ clashes hard with the presentation.

  13. There are two historical dramas that come to mind. The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) and When They See Us (2019). When They See Us is a short series but each episode is a little over an hour long so it feels more like a short series of films. However, both take on legal cases and showcase the legal system in an interesting way. You can see how race plays an important part in the system in a way that it shouldn’t. Although the story in both of these took place in the late 60s and late 80s, the issues are prevalent today. We see it with the BLM movement. In relation to The Butler, it’s a different tone since The Butler has a positive tone which I think was needed at that time whereas now, we are more aware and raising more questions which is why I think The Trial of the Chicago 7 and When They See Us came out. They all serve their purpose needed at the time of their release.

  14. The Butler represented a more hopeful time in talking about racial equality, which is exemplified by the end of the film. The film’s ending sees Cecil watching Obama declared the winner of the 2008 election with tears in his eyes, followed by Cecil getting to meet the new president. This is presented as an optimistic ending, a happy conclusion to the struggles with systematic racism Cecil has faced his entire life. More recent films don’t take this same optimistic tone, instead tending to be much more critical of the government and harsher in depicting the struggles of systematic oppression. Modern films paint a bleaker picture that highlights current injustices. Additionally, The Butler portrays a sort of pull yourself up by your bootstraps story, with the trailer proclaiming that Cecil “overcame his past” to “become a part of history”. This kind of wording wouldn’t go over well today, with films focusing criticism on systematic barrier instead of presenting the narrative that they can be overcome with hard work.

  15. I remember reading in recent years that Viola Davis regretted playing Aibileen in The Help (2011)…and I think watching The Butler (2013) in the year 2021 post-Trump presidency is an entirely different experience than when it was originally made. I remember being a kid when Obama was inaugurated and like the child I was, it sort of seemed like a bigger milestone than it was. I think a lot of people (most likely white liberals) at the time must have been as naive as I was at age 9. This film is 100% a product of its time and its seems in almost complete contrast to the films regarding the Black experience today – dripping with the pain of the past 10 years. As we’re all aware I hope, racism was not obliterated in this country on January 20th, 2009, Trump and the rise of the alt-right being a direct response, or rather retaliation to the Obama presidency. This past summer I watched Da 5 Bloods (2020) dir. Spike Lee and I think it is a great example of how the ways in which these stories are being told has shifted from the early 2010s. This movie in particular paints American history in a similar way to The Butler (with the use of flashbacks and contemporary events/news coverage). Spike Lee, however, doesn’t paint such a positive picture. Not to say that The Butler doesn’t show us a version of American History with some truth to it, but the film overall lacks the reality of the Black struggle in our contemporary society and in the past. Films made today, while showing raw, human experiences like in the films of Spike Lee, there is also a push to showcase stories that branch out to more than stories of Black pain. While these stories of obviously important and needed, I think the market for so many years has been saturated with these narratives and its exciting to see the topics in The Butler in ways that truly reflect the reality of our past and post-Trump America, as well as allowing Black voices to move beyond stories of struggle and progress to stories where possibly their pain is not the forefront and the characters can explore different worlds.

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