Monday, September 09, 2013

The Butler

Lee Daniel's The Butler makes for an akward title. It almost made for a good movie. It chronicle the life of a man from boyhood in the southern cotton fields until he "made it" as a white house butler. He worked for many years as a butler to the presidents that were key in the civil rights movement. As he was witnessing the political side of the movement, his son was involved in the "activist" side.

The movie did a good job of showing the "personal" nature of the civil rights decision. It managed, for the most part, to be politically neutral. Eisenhower struggled with how to manage things, but finally decided to send in troops to support integration. Kennedy initially dismissed civil rights, but letter became a staunch supporter. Nixon and Johnson were both portrayed as callous politicians that wanted to co-opt civil rights for their own personal gain.

While the film showed the presidents' making personal decisions about civil rights, the life of the butler's son showed us the political side. He started out in non-violent protests and passively resisted attacks by the KKK and others. He criticised of his father's life as a "servant" of white people. Martin Luther King JR responded, however, that the house negro was one of the most influential sources of change in that he showed the white man that the black man can be a civilized human. in spite of this, the relationship with father and son remained strained. (Meanwhile, the butler's other son followed the more conservative path, but eventually returned from Vietnam in a body bag.)

Up to this point, I was well pleased with the movie. However, after Watergate, the movie started to lose focus. Ford and Carter did not exist. Reagan finally appears in his second term. He is the one that finally makes sure that the black help is paid at the same rate as the white help. He also makes sure the butler and his wife are invited as guests to a state dinner. This pro-black stance is tempered with Reagan's objection to sanctions on South Africa. (I guess they couldn't make Reagan look like too much of a good guy.)

At his point, the butler is old and decides it is time to retire and reconcile with his son. It would make for a good ending to the movie. But, alas, it didn't stop there. It jumped forward 20 years to show him supporting Obama and his campaign and going back to the White House as a guest of the first black president. This section felt like it was artificially tacked on to the end. It also distracted from the other seen where the butler went back to see the abandoned cotton field where he had grown up. (Is this meant to contrast with the White/Kenyan president who never had no slave history?) Alas, it was a week epilogue for what was otherwise a good movie.

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