Lee Daniels' The Butler: Great Acting, Pretty Good Hollywood Movie, Dumb Politics
Lee Daniels' The Butler is based on the life of a real African American man who was a domestic worker at the White House for eight presidential terms. The movie seems to take plenty of liberties in fleshing out the story originally told in a surprisingly short front-page article in the Washington Post. The opening scene of the movie is a brutal series of crimes that happen in the span of five minutes to the future butler and his parents in a Southern cotton field where they're still functionally enslaved decades after abolition. "In act one, Negroes are mistreated," said a black activist friend I ran into at the entrance to the movie theater, predicting what she was about to see before the movie even started. "In act two, white people rise up to help. Act three, Negro grows old and tells the story."
Here's what I saw: Act two lionized the civil rights era, of black folks rising up to help themselves. Meanwhile, the presidents had isolated moments of awareness followed by abusive acts of entrenched white power. While the struggles of the butler, played by (genius) Forest Whitaker, are changing JFK's heart, JFK's White House perpetuates racist pay/promotion policies. The butler's son is a Freedom Rider/Black Panther played by (genius) David Oyelowo.
Justice isn't done at that forward-back pace, which makes the movie's ending horrifyingly everything's-all-right-nowy. It ends with President Barack Obama's 2008 election. Not, say, his recent Trayvon speech. Then, as credits are about to roll, an epigraph dedicates the movie to those who "fought" for equal rights. Not fight: fought.
Here's an idea: Lee Daniels' The Butler is a pretty good Hollywood movie. Oprah Winfrey is great. Who knew John Cusack would pull off Nixon? It's probably worth seeing. But you could make it better by finding and writing down the name of a contemporary activist to dedicate the movie to before you go. Mine is my friend in line, because history isn't a movie.