“Lee Daniel’s The Butler” has sparked conversation about the need for intergenerational dialogue. “The Butler,” the story of Cecil Gaines, who served eight consecutive presidents — from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan — as butler at the White House, was masterful at exposing the complexities between generations.
At its essence, “The Butler” is also the story of a Black family and the struggles each generation faced in the fight for economic, political and racial justice in the United States.
Gaines, the father, grew up in the south during the 1920s when lynching, sharecropping, random violence and rape described the terror in which African Americans lived. In the 1920s, African Americans bore the brunt and backlash of the South’s loss of the Civil War. After Reconstruction, white southerners responded brutally to federal efforts to give African Americans full citizenship rights. The South responded and was ultimately supported by the federal government in its acts of segregation, denial of voting rights, and violence for its newly freed citizens.
The Black Codes, Jim Crow and lynching was Cecil Gaines’ South and the context from which his life was shaped. His son who would have been born in the late 40s or early 50s came of age protesting and laying his life on the line during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.
Father and son clashed. Simplistically, the son didn’t respect or understand what the father had endured and why he had become a butler and the father couldn’t understand why the son was jeopardizing all of his life’s work for the Civil Rights movement.
Yet, each man entered society and responded to the needs of their time.
The film took us through all the changes and turmoil, and documented the Black struggle for equality (in its many forms) of the 1960s — the assassination of Pres. John Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, the beginning of the Vietnam War, passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, the nationwide rebellions of 1967 and 68 and the evolution for many African American activists from civil rights to economic justice.
So, what are the fathers and grandfathers of today, the ones who led us through the Civil Rights movement, and their children discussing.
“The Butler” depicts the transition from Civil Rights era neighborhoods to Black neighborhoods after the rebellions when the resources began to leave inner cities, yet African Americans won political power.
During this is time, Coleman Young and other African Americans became the “first Black mayors” of major U.S. cities.
Mayor Young made Black millionaires and understood Black political power. Dennis Archer made millionaires — all were of Gaines’ sons generation but what happened to Black Generation X and the Black Millenials?
With emergency management, gentrification and a global economic shift that has left Blacks worse off — what does movement look like for these demographic groups?
With the fall of the Kilpatrick administration, many ex-employees are struggling to work after the taint of his hire — where are the Gen X millionaires that Kilpatrick made? Who are the people that left the Kilpatrick administration to work for great companies or start ones of their own?
Ferguson, a Kilpatrick-made millionaire is now also in federal prison, but not everyone in the administration was corrupt. We must ask ourselves who is the next generation of leaders, business owners and Black talent? There is unfinished work.
With Gov. Rick Snyder and EM Kevyn Orr stationed in city hall, political and economic power in Detroit is nearly lost to Black people. Orr and Snyder are of a culture that says America is post-racial — affirmative action is outlawed and set aside by all cultural norms today, completely looked down upon.
Yet, the economic reality of Black folk in the urban centers of this country is worse than ever.
Under EM Orr, the city of Detroit will spend $100 million in bankruptcy consulting fees. Mayor Young would have wanted to know: Who are the Black firms working on this?
Black companies or professionals aren’t at the table. The schools are segregated. We own fewer businesses than we did under segregation. Black people are geographically fractured with middle-class and better-off Blacks in surrounding Detroit suburbs, and the poor isolated in the city. Black political power has waned. It’s time for an intergenerational conversation.