Is ‘The Butler' a witness to history or a rewriting of it?
Last week’s no. 1 movie at the box office struck me as an unassuming man’s brush with American history, but professional movie reviewers tended to see more of Forrest Gump. Or is it ‘Chump’? I quarrel less with what these worthies wished a White House butler had been instead than with the great events misrepresented, and especially Presidents’ roles in them.
Let’s deal with Cecil Gaines first, ably portrayed by Forest Whitaker. He is forever scarred by an overseer’s rape of his mother and murder of his father. For all the loose talk that liberals give to the damage racial segregation did to black persons’ “hearts and minds” (see Brown v. Board of Education, 1954), critics seem to take little notice of its impact on a young boy who must continue to navigate the dangerous shoals of white prejudice throughout most of his life.
Not only is it not fair for anyone to be sneering at Gaines because he found a way to succeed and even prosper despite his hostile circumstances and, yes, his own limitations. More broadly, it is not fair to take for granted the incredible risks run by often younger, less patient blacks who had had enough of injustice. The best insight of the movie is into blacks’ dilemma constituted by a desire to hold on to what had been gained or risking that for greater, but seemingly unreachable, goals.
However justified the campaign against institutionalized racism, it is no small thing to endure the hatred, abuse and violence of irrational white people equally fixed in their ways. On a personal level, “The Butler” is on the mark in dramatizing the fine line between prudence and folly, courage and cowardice, righteous indignation and unbridled hatred.
On the larger historical canvas, however, this riveting movie is dominated by bad memory or narrow partisanship. The struggle of Republican President Dwight Eisenhower between his desire for gradual ending of segregation and his anger at Democrat Governor Orval Faubus’ defiance of federal court orders to desegregate public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas is clear enough, but it hardly revealed a man unsympathetic to blacks. After all, his administration was the first to propose civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, which was watered down by the Democratic majority leader, Sen. Lyndon Johnson of Texas, to placate his indispensable southern allies.
Similarly, John Kennedy’s horror at the fire hoses and dogs with which southern Democrat sheriffs attacked the followers of Martin Luther King Jr. is fairly portrayed, but his personal reservations about King’s tactics, his strange associates and his personal indiscretions are forgotten. Johnson as President is certainly not romanticized (crudities you have read about are here grossly exhibited), and his use of the ‘N’ word is clear enough. Still, the movie credits him for landmark legislation for which more Republicans voted than Democrats.
Worse, following the failure of Brown v. Board to attack racial segregation on genuine constitutional grounds, the Johnson Administration immediately corrupted both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by abandoning equal justice under the law and embracing unfair preference for racial minorities (and women).
Not surprisingly, Richard Nixon gets short shrift, but there is no evidence that he was insincere in his support of civil rights, nor that his campaign for black capitalism was of no value. Indeed, his willingness to advance racial quotas actually undercut his better inclinations.
The movie is utterly dishonest about Ronald Reagan. His attempt to restore equal justice over reverse discrimination is portrayed as being “on the wrong side.” And he was not alone in his concern about the consequences of dismantling apartheid in South Africa, which has exhibited the spirit of revenge more than reconciliation in the years since. His generosity toward Gaines himself is uncharitably portrayed as mere condescension, if not grandstanding.
Finally, to cap the movie with the successful campaign of Barack Obama for President is to slander, in effect, the thoughtful minority of blacks who see him as merely the extension of racial politics pioneered by Johnson, the wily chameleon who abandoned white racism when he saw there was more political advantage from patronizing blacks than beating them.
It’s certainly legitimate for “The Butler” to let us get a glimpse of history through Cecil Gaines’ eyes, but it deserves more credit for honesty about his personal relations than his close encounter with presidential history.
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of "Take Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at email@example.com