by Jeremy Griffith
American Millennium Online
The Butler movie in theaters right now, starring Forest Whitaker and Opera Winfrey offers wonderful insight into the evils committed to the black communities in the history of our country. Whitaker and Winfrey offer emotional and rich performances in the telling of this story, but the writing of the script depicting Republican presidents as weak, ineffectual or downright racist is jaw-droppingly inaccurate, unfair and detrimental to the historicity of the film.
I had high expectations for this film as it was warmly reviewed prior to it’s release. And in reviewing the film myself for the first time I can honestly say I would recommend it to anyone, despite it’s obvious flaws. The story follows the life of a black man, Cecil Gaines, who escapes from life as a sharecropper in the south to become a butler at the White House. After the rape of his mother and the murder of his father, the grandmother of the rapist takes young Cecil into their house and trains him to be a “house nigger”. Through that employment and good luck, Cecil gets a rudimentary education and training in the skills as a butler that eventually helps him launch a career in the service industry.
Cecil leaves his old life behind and gets work as a butler, getting some mentor ship from and older black butler. Eventually he gets hired by the White House and the story continues to follow his life in that role, through the presidential administrations of Eisenhower to Reagan. The story largely takes place in the ’60s during the height of the Civil Rights movement. There is conflict between two schools of thought, that of Malcolm X and the more peaceful resistance of Martin Luther King. It is unfortunate that Malcolm is not actually ever mentioned in the film, but the violent resistance of the Black Panthers is. Cecil’s son gets involved in this movement and it causes friction in the family.
Predictably, Hollywood has painted Democrats such as Kennedy and Obama as heroes of Civil Rights while painting Republicans like Eisenhower and Reagan as merely tepid, unwilling participants. Nixon gets the worst treatment, depicted as insincere, two-faced and pathetic.
The historical background of this film is so bad that even Wikipedia cites its obvious factual inaccuracies. According to Wiki, the story of The Butler is loosely based on the life of a real life African-American Butler Eugene Allen, who was employed at the White House. From there the similarities end. In the movie, the Cecil character resided as as sharecropper in Macon Georgia where he witnesses the horrible crimes committed to his family by white farmers. In truth, Allen lived in Virginia, and there is no evidence that any such crimes ever took place. In the movie Cecil has two sons, one a right leaning young man who dies in his country’s service in Vietnam and another a radical leftist who joins the Civil Rights movement and ultimately the ultra-violent Black Panther Party. In fact, Allen had only one son, who was indeed an activist, but not nearly as far left as portrayed in the movie.
In the Movie, Ronald Reagan gets some positive treatment as he and his wife Nancy invite the Cecil character and his wife to a White House dinner as a gesture for Cecil’s efforts to increase the pay and benefits of black White House employees to the same level as the white employees. Right after this scene however the memory of Reagan gets a slap in the face. Reagan’s gesture to Cecil and his family is marginalized as merely for show as the President is depicted as a shill who vindictively vetoes congressional efforts to pass measures to punish Apartheid in South Africa.
In fact, the historical records show that Reagan hated Apartheid and did everything he could to nudge the South African government to adopt a more moderate tone. He did indeed veto the congressional boycott, but the movie never explains why. In fact, Reagan was working with moderates to push the South African government and shied away from more radical elements so as to avoid unnecessary violence. In deed, Reagan feared that if the government fell it would be replaced by a more radical leftist totalitarian regime like many other African governments already had. At the time the US had a small contingent of free-market investments in South Africa and black Africans were being employed at US based firms in that country, earning a better wage and benefits than they could expect otherwise. In overcoming the President’s veto, congress forced sanctions on South Africa limiting the ability of private firms from investing in that country and hurting blacks that were finding a better life through employment in American firms as a result, just as Reagan feared it would.
Reagan was not the only politician libeled by this film. Eisenhower takes a hit too. Conversations overheard by Cecil indicate that President Eisenhower was weak on Civil Rights and unwilling to send troops to protect black children attending school in Little Rock Arkansas. Indeed the Supreme Court ruled segregation of public schools unconstitutional in its decision Brown vs. Board of Education that year, and Eisenhower did send troops to uphold that decision. Previous to the time line of the movie, Eisenhower desegregated the military when he was the Supreme Commander of allied forces in Europe during WWII in opposition of the wishes of his chief of staff. Government documents showed that Eisenhower was moving to desegregate schools on military reservations prior to the Supreme Court decision. Eisenhower further drafted sweeping Civil Rights legislation that would grant even more rights to blacks in this country, but the efforts were opposed and watered down by a democratically controlled senate. Eisenhower implemented a Civil Rights commission to focus attention on the issue of voting rights for black Americans and he was the first to hire an African-American to an executive position in the White House.
Ultimately, Eisenhower gets no credit from this movie script for his efforts to help black citizens struggling for their rights during his administration. President John Kennedy gets the credit though, as a hero for passing legislation in his administration granting those rights to blacks, a legislation by the way that mirrored the original intent of the Eisenhower bills.
It’s unfortunate that leftist Hollywood has to do this injustice to history. Indeed blacks in this country have suffered under the unfair and crushing yoke of oppression and slavery since the founding. But the selective interpretation of history by Hollywood is an unfair and an inaccurate representation of what actually happened. A millennial viewer of this movie will likely not dig into the facts of history to find out the truth, rather they will get their impression of history solely from movies like this, which is what the left intends. Disarmed by the propaganda, they will be continually led to believe that only Democrats and black leaders are responsible for their progress towards Civil Rights and not any white man, and certainly not one with an R behind their name.
This historical dramatic license prevents blacks in this country from getting the full picture and ultimately damages them by keeping the facts from them. That in my view prevents this movie and this script with its many great performances from elevating itself from a merely good movie to a great one.
I was a little uncomfortable with end of this movie as it seemed like a free endorsement of the Barack Obama administration. I think it accurately portrays the feelings of many blacks that at last someone would arrive in the White House who will finally make advancements for oppressed colored people in this country, and as such we get a sense of what they were feeling when Obama was elected.
But when it comes to historical facts, again, the Obama administration will be judged as severely lacking. Under the George W. Bush administration, African-American students have been suffering in inadequate schools in the Washington DC school district. Bush implemented a plan to offer vouchers for such students so they could get out of failing schools and attend private schools. This policy offered hope to many African-American students to finally get the better education that they deserved, but predictably, Bush doesn’t get any credit for this. In fact, the Obama administration’s first action does not uphold this program. Rather, the nation’s first black president reverses this progress and closes the program down, committing future students in those same schools to be forever trapped in schools that under-serve them.
Today you can’t visit the Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Washington D.C. The park police have barricaded this open air memorial because of the government shut-down, under the orders of the nation’s first black president.
Overall I give this movie three and a half out of five stars. It is enjoyable and educational in the treatment of the feelings surrounding the black experience here in America during the Civil Rights era. It’s lack of historical realism leaves something to be desired. Cuba Gooding Jr’s performance shows his capacity as an actor even in a supporting role and we could have seen much more of him in this film.
For more on this topic, try some of these historical and entertainment links.
Barton, D. (2003, March). Black history issue 2003. Retrieved from http://www.wallbuilders.com/libissuesarticles.asp?id=134
Wikipedia. (n.d.). The butler. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Butler
Poland, D. (2013, August 09). Review: The butler. Retrieved from http://moviecitynews.com/2013/08/review-the-butler/
Freidman, R. (2013, August 17). Reagan diaries: Detested apartheid but refused to support sanctions, never mentions mandela. Retrieved from http://www.showbiz411.com/2013/08/17/reagan-diaries-detested-apartheid-but-refused-to-support-sanctions-never-mentions-mandela
Civil rights: Brown vs. board of education. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/research/online_documents/civil_rights_brown_v_boe.html