Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Butler

I wasn't going to write this now, but it really was a fantastic movie, and people keep circulating this article, and I feel the need to do more than continue repeating myself on the same issue. This isn't the review I had intended to write, but it seems it's the one that needs to be written.

Overall, I thought it was a fantastic movie, with one significant caveat: too many people won't realize how loosely based on a true story this movie is. The public will see "based on a true story," and put it in the same category as something like 42. While The Butler was indeed based on a true story, a lot of liberties were taken with the details regarding the butler himself and his family. As a historian, that does bother me a bit, because I believe it is important to keep the integrity of the story intact. However, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The article I linked to claims that there were 5 huge inaccuracies. I take issue with four of those.
1. The movie did not portray Ronald Reagan to be indifferent to the sufferings of African Americans. In fact, the movie showed the main character, Cecil, and his co-workers being promised by Nixon during the Eisenhower Administration that the African American White House staff would be given equal wages with the white staff at the White House, should Nixon become president. That never happened. The movie brought up this issue multiple times, and who was it (at least in the movie) who finally got the black staff equal pay? Reagan. How is this indifference? Reagan actually stepped into a realm in the White House where the President doesn't need to step. He went above and beyond to get all of his staff the pay they deserved. If he was truly being portrayed as indifferent, the director would have left that out. (Side note, this was the only time in the entire movie that the whole theater erupted in applause- it was that noticeable.) Not only that, but when Cecil tells Reagan he is resigning, Reagan says, "Cecil, I fear I am on the wrong side of the race issue," and is clearly troubled. If he was actually indifferent, I'm not sure he would have appeared so troubled. The movie DID portray Reagan accurately in regards to the Mandela/South Africa issue.

2. In reality, it was Johnson who got the Civil Rights Act passed. What the article (and voting records) doesn't tell you is that had Johnson not intimidated so many people into voting for it, Congress never would have passed it. Johnson took it upon himself to make sure Kennedy's Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. Johnson was famous for something some historians refer to as "the Johnson treatment." Basically, he was a political bully. Now, whether he should have bullied people into voting for anything is another issue entirely, but had Johnson, a Democrat, not personally taken it upon himself to make certain Kennedy's bill (another Democrat) was passed, neither enough Democrats NOR Republicans would have voted to pass it. Not only that, but the Civil Rights Act could have its own movie. This one was about the president's butler, not Congress. In fact, the Civil Rights Act was so briefly mentioned in the movie I'm surprised it made a "top 5" list of anything.

3. Nixon, well, Nixon was an interesting person. In fact, there is significant speculation now that Nixon suffered from a mental illness or personality disorder. I say that to say, Nixon had three chief concerns during his administration: 1. Wrapping up Vietnam, 2. Opening relations with China, and 3. Making sure no one was plotting against him. You think I'm joking with that third one? I'm not. Nixon was absolutely paranoid, and that actually took a significant amount of his attention during his administration. Yes, he did a lot for school integration. But I attribute that less to his concern for African Americans and more to the time at which he became president. One could argue that Eisenhower did a lot for integration too, and yet it's fairly well known that he was not a fan of it at all. Eisenhower only did what he did because he was the president and he did his job. I have seen no evidence to suggest that it was any different for Nixon. And whether Allen (the REAL Cecil) spoke well of Nixon in his memoirs or not is rather irrelevant. Many individuals are much more palatable as, well, individuals, than as public leaders. Nixon was a rough personality, period. It's hard to say what his true feelings were about many things. I don't think this movie did him any real disservice.

4. Again, I didn't see that Cecil disliked the Reagans. I saw that decades of civil rights struggles had taken him to a place where he was more disenchanted with anyone he perceived to be less than fully dedicated to civil rights. Reagan DID in fact oppose Congress on the South Africa and Mandela issues. Additionally, during the state dinner, Cecil did say, "I only wish we had been there for real, and not for show." That's a legitimate feeling. Unless there was a lot left out of the movie, and the Reagans actually played cards and had drinks with Cecil and his wife regularly, it would be hard to make a solid case stating that he had actually been invited with absolutely no shred of motive for "show." Again, considering the era is a must. This does not reflect poorly on Reagan as a man. It portrays him as a human being with human faults. What I did see was that Cecil did not at all dislike Reagan, but rather, he was disappointed by Reagan's unwillingness to do more on the Mandela issue. In his shoes, I think I'd get weary of that too, by the 1980s.

As a historian who is unfamiliar with Allen's particular story, but who IS rather familiar with Jim Crow, Civil Rights, and the presidents in the movie, I really didn't have any problems with the portrayal of those things in the movie. Again, yes, I do have some issues with them taking a true story and changing it SO much, but had it been a fictional work, like The Help, it would be phenomenal. Therefore, my suggestion is definitely to go see it and learn from it. It does accurately portray the various presidents, the struggle of the students on the front lines of the civil rights movement, the horrors of Jim Crow America, and the struggles faced by many black families during the civil rights era. 

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