Straddling Divides: Unpacking the Father-Son Relationships in The Butler and Lincoln

Deeps > Contemporary Film and the Black Atlantic > Familial and Community Relationships > Straddling Divides: Unpacking the Father-Son Relationships in The Butler and Lincoln

“I don’t think that God meant for people to not have a family.” – Cecil Gaines


Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013) and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) might appear to tackle vastly different themes on the surface, but one point of intersection they share is how they represent familial relationships, particularly those that involve fathers and sons. The relationships represented by Abraham and Robert as well as by Cecil and Louis suggest that there existed a generational divide in terms of how fathers and sons conceptualized their relationship to the republic.

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In The Butler, Cecil begins his work as a house nigger for Miss Annabel after he watches an overseer shoot his father.  When he leaves Miss Annabel and takes his new job in North Carolina, he is told to “See what they [white people] need. Anticipate. Smile with your eyes.”  As his new boss explains to him, the only way to ascend the social ladder is to make whites feel non-threatened by black existence.  This training in both obedience and subservience not only suggests that a life worth living is based on hierarchical systems of order, but also that there is no room for occupational dissent, especially if a black male hopes to keep his job.  When Cecil later assumes his job as a butler in the White House, the Major D tells him that when in the presence of political figures he must make himself unnoticed.  “You hear nothing. You see nothing. You only serve,” says Major D.

Louis, unlike his father, Cecil, grows up in the 1960s while the United States is involved in the Vietnam War and does not value the subservient nature that his father has been trained to appreciate.  When given the opportunity to go to college, Louis chooses to attend Fisk University, a historically black university located in Nashville, Tennessee.  At Fisk, he joins the Black Panthers and takes up his role as a Freedom Rider.  Thrown in jail on more than one occasion, Louis’ resilience demonstrates his belief that blacks must rally for their independence if they want recognition and respect in America; blacks must vocalize their dissatisfaction if they expect to be heard.  Throughout The Butler, Louis maintains a relationship with his mother instead of with his father.  The scene below features one of Louis’ first interactions with his father after he joins the Black Panther Party.

In this emotionally fraught scene Louis condemns Cecil and compares him to Uncle Tom.  Cecil, who cannot bear the disrespect of his own son in his own house, throws Louis and his girlfriend out of his home.

The ongoing tension that underlies their relationship throughout The Butler begs the question: who’s right?  Has Cecil wasted his life by adhering strictly to the rules other set for him?  Does the White House – the pinnacle of Cecil’s career – really represent his greatest fall: his defeat in the face of the white man?  Is Louis’ defiant attitude something to aspire to?  What kind of power does Louis possess that his father will never know?

While these questions deserve answers especially in light of the movie Daniels has created – one which creates an obvious divide between father and son – there also exists one more question that needs to be posed: What if both Cecil and Louis are right in how they negotiate black and white spaces presented in the movie?  What if both of their approaches are necessary?

Lincoln, which was filmed just one year before The Butler, describes another charged father-son relationship.  In Spielberg’s latest production, President Lincoln appears more committed to his political responsibilities than his familial obligations.  While this movie attempts to paint Lincoln as someone who is more than his political position as the President of the United States by calling attention to his role as a husband, father, and storyteller, the mere fact that so much of this film takes place within town halls and board rooms suggests that Lincoln’s work was more meaningful than his life outside of politics.

As much as Spielberg depicts Lincoln as diplomatic and levelheaded, he also makes clear that the president had a temper, which he was not afraid to unleash, whenever things did not go his way.  Lincoln’s temper is expressed most towards his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Fields), and his oldest son, Robert Lincoln.

In one of Lincoln’s most intense quarrels with his wife the two argue about their sons.  Mary screams that she should have committed herself to an asylum years ago because she is unable to stop herself from crying at the thought of bad things happening to her children.  Lincoln responds by loudly declaring that he should have helped her get into an asylum years ago and tells her that her sons need to learn to make their own decisions.  Before he slams the door while walking out of the room, Mary falls to her knees sobbing helplessly.

One of the reasons Lincoln and Mary argue about their sons so frequently throughout the movie is because Robert wants to enlist in the army to fight in the war.  The scene below features Robert telling his father for the first time about his plans to enter the army.

Robert, who is training to become a lawyer at Harvard, comes back from his term at school and realizes that he might not actually want to be a lawyer.  The scene above shows Robert telling his father that he wants to be meaningful and useful in the present moment.  Robert is eager to contribute to the world in some substantial form and he thinks that the best way he can do that is by enlisting to fight in the war.  In the scene above, Robert accuses his father of what he says is his favorite tactic – delaying – and brings this up to suggest that if his father does not grant him permission to enroll as soon as possible, the war will probably be over before he can be of any help.

The scene included above is only one of the scenes from Lincoln that features Robert talking about his possible enlistment.  This scene is fairly mild in its intensity likely because Lincoln and his son are not alone when the discussion occurs.  In one of Robert and Lincoln’s later meetings, Robert frustratingly tells his father that, “whether or not you fight in the war is going to matter. I want to be something.”  To this statement, Lincoln replies by slapping his son across the face and walking out of the room indicating not only that the conversation is over, but also that Robert has crossed the boundary by suggesting that only fighting can make him a respectable man.

The underlying current that runs through both The Butler and Lincoln is this pervasive belief by the younger generation that the only way to make an impactful difference is to aggressively participate in a fight or a war.  While this post has mainly focused on Cecil’s relationship with Louis, it is also necessary to mention that while Louis participates in the Civil Rights Movement, Cecil’s younger son, Charlie (Elijah Kelley) volunteers to fight in the Vietnam War.  Charlie is not unlike Robert when he wants to serve his country with his hands and not necessarily with his mind, as his parents would prefer.  By featuring both white and black sons who want to engage in war, one thing that Lincoln and The Butler suggest is that this younger generations belief in serving bravely and immediately is something that concerns all people and is not decided by a color line.  When both Lee Daniels and Spielberg create films that show how active and resourceful the younger generations can be their films call on the younger generation of today to find ways to be “useful” to use a word directly taken from Robert.

Moreover, when the end of The Butler shows how Cecil joins in a peaceful protest with his son, Louis, then the movie suggests that parents can and do in fact learn from their children.  When Cecil and Louis reunite viewers are left to believe that Louis will learn something, too, from his father in the moments that the two mend their relationship.

Earlier in this post, I posed the question “who’s right?” by which I meant which generation are the filmmakers suggesting viewers should align themselves with.  While the obvious answer is the younger generation – the people who have more foresight and determination of will – I want to propose that what Daniels and Spielberg are doing with Lincoln and The Butler is not advocating that viewers pick teams.  Instead they are suggesting that father-son struggles have long plagued relationships and while these tensions are unpleasant, they exist so they can allow people to learn from one another when it seems least possible to do so.

How to cite this project: Sasha Panaram, Hannah Rogers, Thayne Stoddard. “Contemporary Film and the Black Atlantic.” Deeps, (Accessed on Date)

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