An OWNers Review of Lee Daniels’ The Butler: "I am Forever Changed"
The film is, at its core, an emotional exploration of one family’s journey through the civil rights era—an exploration of what it means to use your voice in service, and an emotional journey of what it means to love, understand, accept and respect one another. The film charts the course of both Cecil and Louis’ attempts at inspiring change.
In my opinion, one of the most powerful scenes in the film sees the butlers in the White House setting the table for an official dinner, with all of the attendant finery, china and gold cutlery, while Louis and his fellow students in the James Lawson workshops enter a diner and ask to be served at the "whites-only" counter. This scene provides an emotional juxtaposition of the notion of service and being served and is hauntingly visceral in its unflinching depiction of the emotional turmoil, bigotry and violence the students endure as they seek equality of access and treatment in the diner. While the butlers are helping people be seated and pushing in their chairs at the White House dinner, Louis and his friends are being unseated, literally pushed from their chairs before being beaten, humiliated and arrested. I watched this scene with shock and utter horror, heartbroken at the injustice the students endured, while marveling at the brilliant way Lee Daniels portrays the contrast within the two scenes. When watching the butlers in that scene, the words of Freddie Fallows to Cecil rang in my ears: "You hear nothing. You see nothing. You only serve."
The film poignantly explores the tension Cecil faces between career and family, becoming so wrapped up in the needs of the First Family that, as Gloria says, he neglected his own family. What Cecil saw as providing for his family, Gloria saw as abandonment.