The Butler: preachy propaganda or historical truth?

I saw this film just after taking a course at my local college about the history of the civil rights movement in the US. You can read the demeaning treatment of blacks in segregated facilities, or about lynchings (which often involved much grotesque tortures than just hanging someone), but movies have the power to make intellectual issues hit home emotionally in a way history books can’t.

The Butler posterCecil Gaines was born in the 1920s,and became a butler who served eight presidents, from Eisenhower to Regan. One of his sons dies in Vietnam, while the other joins the Black Panthers. The conflicts between the family members about how Gaines serves the white man, and has to pretend to have no opinions, while one of the sons decides to fight the whites with violence by joining the Black Panthers, must have torn many black families apart.

The film repeatedly comes back to the issue of equal pay. The black staff in the White House were paid 40 percent less than the white staff, and various “progressive” presidents, (including Kennedy) did nothing to change this.

The film is well acted, and the photography is good. Some critics have said it tries to cover so much history that it comes across as a series of postcards. I guess that’s inevitable when you try to capture one person’s reaction to all the major events  of a thirty-year period. There is no time to explore any one event in depth.  A lot of people under the age of 30 would have no (or little) knowledge of some of the events shown (the Freedom Rides, the Vietnam War, the Resignation of Nixon.)

I found the film’s subject matter often depressing, even tho the film attempts to end on an up-beat note, showing the elderly Gaines witnessing the election of the first black president. It’s a well-made film, and may give some non-Americans a bit of a glimpse into race relations and how they have or haven’t changed over recent decades.

The reviews are mixed. some call it “preachy.” Some say it is designed as “Oscar bait.” On Rotten Tomatoes one reviewer writes:

  • Think of it as a Trojan horse. Apparently harmless, it takes key myths about the land of the free and inflicts an impressive amount of damage.

That reviewer obviously thought the myths of the “Land of the Free” were just myths and needed debunking.  Another writes:

  • Manipulative and preachy, The Butler is redeemed by a sensitive performance from Forest Whitaker and the undeniable power of the events it depicts.

It would be hard for a film to deal with the situation of black people in America from the 1920s to the 1980s and not show that some were not as free as others. It’s good film,  but I don’t think I’d see it twice. Did it seem to you like propaganda?  Was it “Oscar bait?” I’d be interested to hear what others thought. Feel free to leave a comment!

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