Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Butler

     Lee Daniel’s The Butler which opened across the country recently drawing huge audiences has also been the target  of criticism alleging that its “politics are terribly problematic” because it is “a cinematic version of a black liberal consensus narrative”  that is not sufficiently appreciative of the role of the  Black Power movement in the struggle for rights.

      I would say the following:

1)      It is a movie not a political science textbook.

2)      As a movie it does its job well, telling a compelling story, and in the process dealing with facets of black history which ought to be more widely known but which are seldom put on the screen.  Specifically,

(A)   The opening scenes depict the rape of the protagonist’s mother and the killing of his father by the son of the owner of the plantation on which the family works. The year is 1928. For decades in the south the lynching of black men was a grim reality. In some years 10-20-30 were hung, shot, burned—allegedly to protect white women from sexual predation by black men, yet the unacknowledged horror was sexual violence by white men against black women. No film maker except the black director Oscar Micheaux dealt with that reality. The Butler has a different story to tell but its opening scenes are grounded in a truth not otherwise seen on the big screen.

(B)    The disagreement between the Butler and his son in the film depicts generational differences that were real in that era. I was an advocate of ‘direct action’ and organized and took part in sit-ins, demonstrations, boycotts  and other forms of active protest. But there were black men a generation older than I, equally committed to achieving racial justice,  who had lived through an era 40 years earlier when black communities such as the one in Ocala, Florida, and the flourishing black community in Tulsa were put to the torch and their black populations driven out for much less than my generation was proposing to do. In other words, they had grown up in a more dangerous age and were more cautious as to the tactics to be used in struggling for change.  The difference between the Butler and his son as depicted in the film ought to be the catalyst for discussion about how our times shape us and how we shape our times..   

(C)   In a country with a very short memory it is good to have a film that depicts in stark, moving terms the sit-in’s, the freedom rides, the Selma march and other iconic moments  in the civil rights struggle. As the film depicts,  black and white together were trained to confront racist violence with non-violence, black and white together  bled and died to end segregation.  It was only yesterday, but too many young people do not know that these things happened.

3)       As for whether women were depicted as mere appendages of men, as one critic of the film charged,  suffice it to say that Oprah didn’t come through as anyone’s appendage.


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