As a youngster, I had little knowledge or understanding of the Holocaust. There was no Holocaust Remembrance Day that focused my attention on this unspeakable tragedy and I did not know any Holocaust survivors. Once I entered Yeshiva University as a freshman, however, things changed. At the college there were courses on the Holocaust, and survivors visited as guest speakers, sharing some of their experiences with the students.
I soon became sensitive to the issue of using German products, and driving around in my new Volkswagen in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan where many survivors lived was not always a comfortable experience once I became aware of how strong some people felt about Nazi Germany. For me, the Holocaust was still an academic subject, but for them it was an ever-present memory that still haunted them. I recall seeing Sidney Lumet’s film The Pawnbroker and being disturbed by its narrative about a concentration camp survivor who cannot adjust to his present reality because of his horrific memories of the past. He saw life through the prism of history. I only saw today.
This memory of the disparity between my superficial understanding of the Holocaust and the searing memory of someone who actually has endured cruelty returned as I watched The Butler, a moving drama about Cecil Gaines, an African-American butler who served in the White House for 34 years during the administration of several presidents and through some of the most tumultuous times in our nation’s history. It is an engaging historical film; but also one that describes the evolution of the relationship between father and son, who view the same events but with different eyes.
Cecil Gaines’s history begins with tragedy on a cotton plantation in 1926, where his parents work as sharecroppers. His mother is raped by the farm’s owner and his father is then shot dead by him. Out of pity, Annabeth Westfall, the caretaker of the estate, takes in Cecil and trains him as a house servant.
When he reaches his teens, Cecil embarks for a new home, away from the precarious life of a persecuted black man in the South. Serendipitously, he meets Maynard, also a house servant, who finds employment for Cecil in one of the wealthiest households in Washington, D.C. Soon he meets the love of his life, Gloria, and they have two boys, Louis and Charlie. In 1957, Cecil is hired by the White House during the administration of President Eisenhower. Louis, his oldest son, elects to go Fisk College, a school far away from home, and there he becomes involved in the non-violent protest movement promoting equal rights for blacks.
Cecil’s family story parallels the growth of the Civil Rights movement in America, and the film masterfully juxtaposes the abysmal treatment of blacks in the South with Cecil’s immaculate work in the White House. While his son is beaten and then incarcerated, Cecil is serving guests in the White House dining room with gloved hands.
The tension between Louis and his father intensifies when Louis joins the radical Black Panther organization. For Louis, this is heroic; for Cecil it is insane. After many years, there is reconciliation, but only when both recognize the disparity between each other’s life experience. Louis has led a comfortable life in a Washington suburb and has not experienced the childhood trauma of his father. Cecil, experiencing poverty and violence as a young child, feels that real change can only come about gradually and cannot be forced; hence, his antipathy for movements that promote violence, even when the cause is just. This practical approach is expressed by Maynard, Cecil’s mentor in his early years, when he offers him advice on how to succeed: “We’ve got two faces- ours, and the ones that we got to show the white folks. Now, to get up in the world, you have to make them feel non-threatened. Use them fancy words that I’ve taught you. White folks up north, they like some uppity coloreds.”
The great sage Hillel says in the Talmud: “Do not judge your fellow man until you reach his place.” It is, indeed, impossible to judge another because our life experiences are so different. Both Cecil and Louis initially err when they view the other stereotypically without understanding the different life journeys each has taken. The Butler reminds us of the essential complexity of human experience and how judging people superficially can shatter even the most precious of relationships.