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'The Butler' keeps black man 'in his place'

Posted By Drew Zahn On 08/18/2013 @ 7:24 pm In Front Page,Politics,Reviews,U.S. | No Comments

In February, I wrote a movie review under the title, “Why must liberalism destroy everything it touches?”

To be fair, however, it isn’t just liberal agendas that ruin good movies, but the effort on any filmmaker’s part to shoehorn a “moral of the story” or a political agenda in at the end, especially when the story doesn’t actually support or require the sermon. I had the same criticism of the movie “Courageous,” which ended with an altar call instead of concluding an otherwise well-told story.

And sadly, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” makes this same catastrophic blunder.

For most of the film – which is based only very loosely on real White House Butler Eugene Allen – the story focuses on an estranged father-son relationship as a metaphor for the divergent approaches used to combat racism during America’s Civil Rights Era.

White House Butler Cecil Gaines (played with a quiet, but deep, rumbling strength by Forest Whitaker) looks back on his days on the plantation and marvels that he has come so far as to have a home, a family and a job at the White House. He views his life, as a butler from Eisenhower’s administration through Reagan’s, as a steady march forward in the rights of a black man in America.

And on one hand, his peaceful approach toward changing society with quiet integrity is affirmed in the film, first through a scene with students learning from the words of Gandhi, and then in another when Martin Luther King, Jr. praises Gaines for breaking down racial stereotypes by his example of hard work and trustworthiness.

Yet at the same time, the belief that progress can be made slowly by changing the white man’s perception is held in tension against the ongoing injustices suffered while waiting for attitudes to change.

This tension is allegorized in Gaines’ relationship with his (completely fictitious) son, who pursues a life of activism, first through peaceful means, then through violent, then through political. His journey begins in peaceful sit-ins at “white” lunch counters and runs the gauntlet all the way to the Black Panthers and plans to murder white men.

Yet the movie rings with conscience, as the difference between activism and revenge is depicted clearly, and none other than Jesse Jackson explains returning hate for hate is not the solution.

For most of the movie, this is a brilliant, engaging, thought-provoking, heart-wrenching and still entertaining treatment of the struggle for racial equality in the U.S.

Even seeing glimpses of real, historical events and presidents in cameo roles in the life of the butler is an excellent counter-spice, though a bit hit-and-miss in the casting, as some of the actors are appealing in their presidential roles and others are … well, awful.

And for most of the movie, the presidents are merely backdrops to the real story, portrayed as men who desire to do good but are caught in the circumstances of their times, flawed in their own ways, but still seeking the good of the nation – black, white or otherwise. Though frequently depicting politicians, the film is mostly not political.

But in the last 20 minutes of the movie, the filmmakers – apparently not happy with the moral of the excellent story they just told – take a sharp and completely unwarranted left turn. Suddenly the movie lurches from a fascinating historical allegory to a vehicle for vilifying Reagan and glorifying the Democrat Party. It’s a shocking departure from the rest of the story, and an awful shame.

At first, when Reagan appears, it seems as though the film will portray him as it did the other presidents: through his flaws, quirks, stumblings and triumphs. It does grant the president some positive moments, such as his concern for his constituents, his actions taken against racists on his staff and Nancy Reagan’s invitation of the butler and his wife to a state dinner (which actually did happen in real life).

But then it takes a turn. The film slams Reagan for vetoing a sanction bill on apartheid South Africa. Though Reagan did in fact veto the bill, the movie takes his action wildly out of context, ignoring that Reagan had already placed sanctions on South Africa and he feared additional sanctions would be taken out on the nation’s poor, black population. It also leaves out his battle against communism in Africa and the foreign policy motivations that played into his veto, instead portraying it as evidence the racist white man never really changes.

In fact, the film manipulates this moment to create a pivot for Gaines to grow disillusioned and reject his previous perspective. Suddenly, Nancy’s invitation to the butler and his wife transforms from honest gesture (as the real-life butler recalled it) to a token measure of racial patronage, “proving” that the butler’s slow revolution is no revolution at all – and it’s all Reagan’s fault.

The butler’s son even trumpets: “Ronald Reagan has attacked or destroyed every race measure ever put into place.”

Say what? That’s not how I recall history. And none of the other presidents in the film get this wildly biased and nasty depiction.

Then we fast-forward to Obama’s candidacy and the glowing, worshipful adoration of him over nothing but the color of his skin. (Is the solution to racism in this country really just trading one form of prejudice for another? Didn’t most of the film suggest that’s exactly the wrong approach, only to contradict itself in the end?) The weeping, the rejoicing, the front-porch barbeque with everyone wearing “Yes, We Can” T-shirts – it looks like an Obama television ad, only with a bad make-up job.

Then we see the film’s hero, having known all the presidents, specifically pass over the tie pin he got from Reagan to put on the Kennedy tie, the LBJ pin and go visit Obama in the White House as though the butler was a fool all those years to think white Republicans could advance civil rights when all along it was the Democrats who had his back.

No, no, no, no, NO!

Not only is this a ridiculous flip-flop rewrite on history (it was Republicans, not Democrats, who worked to end slavery in the 1850s and ’60s; it was Southern Democrats, not Republicans, who worked so hard to keep “the negroes” in “their place” in the 1950s and ’60s; and it was Republican Dwight Eisenhower, over the objection of Democrat Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, who in 1957 proposed and passed the first civil rights bill in the U.S. since Reconstruction), but it’s also a betrayal of the movie’s entire story.

The movie had been fair to both praise and skewer presidents of both parties. It had kept partisanship on the side to deal with bigger issues. It was a good story.

Why do this? Why suddenly and not-so-subtly just become a DNC promotion piece? The story did not try to paint LBJ as a glowing civil rights hero, but the sermonizing in the end does for no good reason. The story did not (until the Reagan fallout) scream Democrat good, Republican bad … until the very end.

Why? Why ruin a good movie?

I can only guess that keeping “the black man” in “his place” – voting Democrat – is still more important to some than letting him think for himself. And oddly enough, it’s the same party still doing it.

Content advisory:

  • “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” rated PG-13, contains roughly 50 obscenities and profanities, as well as one very lewd joke.
  • The film contains a significant amount of sexual references and an implied rape, but no actual sex scenes. There is some kissing, several lewd jokes, references to sex, adultery and fornication and one prominent painting of a nude woman.
  • The movie contains dozens of examples of racial violence, including lynched bodies, riots, fights, mob action, physical and verbal abuse and slurs. The scenes are meant to both be realistic and horrifying, but fall short of dwelling on blood or gore.
  • The movie has several references to God in general and Christianity in positive terms, including a few scenes in churches. Burning crosses are depicted as part of a KKK mob. The film contains no other significant occult references.

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