Tuesday, August 27, 2013

'The Butler' serves up civil rights struggle

Saw "Lee Daniels' The Butler" on Saturday, the same day that the 1963 March on Washington was commemorated in D.C.

That coincidence is fitting since the film is less about "The Butler," who served eight white presidents and is played well by Forest Whitaker, and more about the civil rights struggle in this country.

Surprisingly, for the second week in a row, "The Butler" was No. 1 at the box office.

Of course, the title of the movie is enough to keep many people away, but the filmmakers' claim they did this at the last minute because of legal issues surrounding another film called "The Butler," which was a silent film from 1916. 

But, that's a side issue to what "The Butler" means in America today.

Are we living in a post-racial era with a bi-racial president?

Not really.

Many comments about the film on the IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes websites reveal that, sadly, we still live in a racist time. Obviously, the film was a tad uncomfortable for these folks.

The Trayvon Martin case is still an open wound for many, including me, who believe that justice was not served.

Yes, there have been a couple of recent high-profile attacks of blacks on whites, but the big difference is this: The black perpetrators will serve prison time.

For anyone who lived through the civil rights' strife of the 1960s, "The Butler" covers familiar ground in showing attacks on Freedom Riders, lunch-counter sitters and others doing nothing more than marching peacefully for racial justice.

What's not so familiar is seeing these struggles through the eyes of those who suffered unspeakable crimes against their dignity.

Whitaker's butler had one of the more difficult jobs in America.

He had to be the "house nigger," as noted in the film, by subverting all his anger, and dignity, so that he could provide for his family.

That anger comes out in his oldest son who embraces the civil rights' struggle, complete with repeated jailings, to the consternation of his parents.

One of the great segments in the movie is when President Reagan is the first president to equalize pay between the black and white help at the White House, and when Nancy Reagan invites the butler and his wife to a state dinner for the first time.

Of course, as the film notes, Reagan was no friend of African-Americans. He opposed sanctions against South Africa and is shown admitting to the butler that he might be on the wrong side of history.

Uh, yeah.

In a moment that should touch many whites, as well as most African-Americans, the butler embraces his wayward son near the end of the film for teaching him what really matters in life.

The fault of the movie is trying to compress all the horrors African-Americans have endured, from slavery (in this case, a southern cotton plantation in the 1920s) to the present day, in a two-hour, 10-minute movie.

It's a bit of a reach.

But, African-American filmmakers don't have that many opportunities to get their history told properly.

When they get that chance, they have to milk it for all it's worth because they don't know when the chance to do so will ever come again.

The white screenwriter, Danny Strong, credits last summer's success of "The Help" for paving the way for "The Butler" to be made and released. Having Oprah Winfrey in the cast helped a bit, too.

With the early success of "The Butler," it's fair to say we should see other thoughtful, even humorous, depictions of the civil rights era in the future. (By the way, there is some levity, even hilarity, in "The Butler.")

We can only hope so.

The racial divide in this country can only be crossed by facing the truth about our current racism, whether we like it or not.

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