“The Butler”: an unexpected history of race relations in America

I just saw the film “The Butler.” I knew little in advance and expected a feel-gooder in the line of “Driving Miss Daisy” or “The Remains of the Day.” Those are great movies but for useful emotions (like indignation) and historical insights, I’d have to choose “The Butler.”

If you have seen it or don’t plan to, you can read all about it in Wikipedia, of course.

If you still might see it, I’d suggest accelerating.

Not that I recognize stars (they could come to my front door and I’d assume they were with an environmental group) but I was right: Jane Fonda was Nancy Reagan (and a very sympathetic one at that). Well, Oprah Winfrey, yes, I had also heard of her before.

It all seems to have begun with an article in the Washington Post, “A Butler Well Served by This Election” by Wil Haygood, 11/7/08.

The movie is actually pretty far from the real story. Or, let’s say, it uses the real story to create its own powerful narrative.

I don’t like speaking of the “civil rights movement” as if it were in the past, because it has been going on for centuries and isn’t anywhere near over. But if by that phrase you mean the 1960’s, this movie will bring you tears of recognition and embarrassment for our country.

The positives that stand out are the courage of those who stood up or sat in for rights–many beaten, imprisoned, or killed for their efforts–and their ultimate successes before the law.

And actually, all the presidents portrayed, from Eisenhower on (and spouses of a couple of them), act like pretty decent people. That’s a relief, anyhow. If only they had been faster to act. Ultimately, after “the butler” tries in several administrations, it’s Ronald Reagan whom he finally gets to end the pay inequity between black and white staff.

I’m not much of a television fan (except, naturally, for “Downton Abbey”), but the TV scenes of protesters beaten by police watched by selected presidents, who reacted with words to the effect of “This is really bad, I’m going to have to do something,” show the power of the medium.

I was particularly interested by the scenes from the history of the Black Panther Party, which the son of the film’s butler figure joins for a period. The dialogues and scenes sound as if someone on the job had been reading Elaine Brown’s autobiography, which I reviewed earlier this year.

Ultimately, the film does end on a feel good moment. It’s not just the main character preparing to meet newly inaugurated president Barack Obama in the White House; it’s the knowledge that we don’t have legal segregation any more, we do have black public officials, and people like the butler’s (fictitious) activist son won their case.

Let me end by saying: anyone who cares about the message of “The butler” is going to have to vote in every election for the rest of their lives.

Did I mention, there’s an election on November 5, 2013.

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About politicswestchesterview

Nathaniel regards himself as a progressive Democrat who sees a serious need to involve more Americans in the political process if we are to rise to Ben Franklin's challenge "A republic, madam, if you can keep it," after a passerby asked him what form of government the founders had chosen. This blog gives my views and background information on the local, state, and national political scenes. My career in higher education was mainly in the areas of international studies, foreign languages, and student advising, most recently at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, from which I retired in 2006. I have lived in West Chester since 1986.
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2 Responses to “The Butler”: an unexpected history of race relations in America

  1. Susan Tiernan says:

    This is vintage Nathaniel. Himself in full bloom, to mix some references.

  2. Thanks Nathaniel.
    That was an interesting read. I agree with our view of the film and particularly like that you say the Civil Rights movement is not a thing of the past. It’s one of the issues I had with the film (which I largely enjoyed.).
    Here’s my blog on it http://marmosetmowords.com/2013/09/30/the-butler-serves-up-a-chronicle-of-the-civil-rights-movement/

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