“The Butler:” My Celebration of the March on Washington Fifty Years Later


I begin with a disclaimer.  I am not a movie critic, though I do criticize movies.  I have no training in this art and my opinion is not backed up by years of practice.    I’m not insensitive to costumes, timing, editing, directing styles and all the other “cinematic” aspects of a movie. I’m just not aware of them unless something jars my enjoyment/appreciation and comprehension of the story.

A second disclaimer is that I lived through the period of time depicted in “The Butler.”  Goodness, by saying that I am definitely showing my age.  And I have a definite affinity for movies about the Civil Rights Movement because I was part of it.

This is what I think of “The Butler.”  I am so glad that there are enough black people with the wealth, sensitivity, and power to make such a movie.  One reviewer pointed out that twenty odd years ago “Forrest Gump” was the last time an attempt was made to illuminate the breath of time and action of the period of this movie.  In 2005 a book agent told me that the Civil Rights Movement was old business and that books on the Movement, like mine, would never sell.  But who says the Civil Rights Movement is over?  The main point of the movie, for me, is that the need may be different, but it is strong.  Poverty, poor education and poor medical care still crush many Americans.  It’s not necessarily because of color, or religion or ethnicity, it’s because of economics.  One in four children lives in poverty in the U.S. and the statics are getting worse.  “Median household income in the United States — a measure that includes both households of one person and households of multiple people — is about $50,000.” When I think that my husband and I, both retired, make more money than the majority of people in America, with or without children, I’m shocked. ( http://onpoint.wbur.org/2013/06/25/child-poverty-america   http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/19/success-money_n_1608925.html ) The Civil Rights Movement is needed as much before because our economy smashes the hopes of so many.

But, back to “The Butler.”  The conflict between Mr. Gaines and his son is the key to understanding the movie for me.  When I announced to my white parents that I was going to register black voters in 1965 I remember the looks on their faces and their tones of voice.  Like the son in “The Butler,” I was eventually forgiven.  However, I knew black people who had to make hard choices.  The father of one of the young black men who worked on our project (SCOPE, 1965) forbade him to take part in voter registration in his community.  There may have been several good reasons for this taboo, but when the son continued to do so, the father beat him until he was hospitalized.  The Movement tore families apart.  In another case I met a young man who was a student at Morris Brown College.  (A black college in Atlanta, GA)  He was the first of his family to ever enter college just as Louis, the oldest Gaines son, was.  The young man I met was shaken when he had to decide whether to join the freedom struggle to be a man, a full citizen in the American dream, and waste the money, tears and blood his parents had invested or to be a good son and successful college graduate.  Although many at that time and looking back think the Civil Rights Movement was black against white, the conflict was so much more on both sides of the struggle.

Another reviewer said that the movie moved too slowly under the direction of Lee Daniels.  Thirty years in two hours and 13 minutes!  Thirty of the most important years of our history.  I didn’t feel like time was dragging on for sure.

One of my friends wouldn’t go to the movie because Jane Fonda played Nancy Reagan.  The choice of Fonda showed a sense of humor if not a sense of history.  However, I believe Fonda pulled it off.  She was reserved and superior through her condescending smile.  Appropriate.  We are no longer at war with the Vietnamese.  Those of us with the money can take vacations in Vietnam.  Our businesses are in Vietnam.  Get over it!  If we can spend money there and make money there, Jane Fonda can play Nancy Reagan.

Another friend wouldn’t see the movie because he thinks the marketers tout it as being true.  I don’t see it.  It’s based on a true story.  One reviewer I read said that Mr. Gaines wasn’t particularly exciting and that the other characters were more interesting.  Perhaps that’s why they were added along with a deeper story line.  Mr. Gaines lived most of the experience as a restrained, proper servant.  For those of you who are “Downton Abby” fanatics, you know the importance of propriety.

The cast did not let us down.  Forest Whitaker is amazing as Gaines.  Oprah Winfrey adds dimensions I’d never imagined to her acting credits.

I cried during the movie and after the movie.  A history teacher and a civil rights worker I taught the events of the civil rights struggle from the Emmett Till case to the Obama election.  I was too young to remember Emmett Till and Rosa Parks but the rest, I experienced.  The Sit-Ins, Freedom Rides, events in Birmingham caught my attention and it was the deaths of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman in the summer of 1964 and ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Selma in the summer of 1965 that moved me to sign up with Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  Those events are all here in a way that ties them together.  Textbooks are dry lists of facts.  This movie makes us feel what texts only refer to.

The government of the United States is organized around the ideals specified in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.  It’s not organized around skin color, one language, one religion or one ethnic group.  “The Butler” makes that clear to anyone who will watch.

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