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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Civil Rights History - Living on the Outside and Looking Inside: Through the camera of The Butler

Being a Caucasian,  I can only wonder what it was been like to be born a Negro in the 1920s, and live through the 1950's and 60s, American Civil Rights Movement.  This racially difficult time was even more conflicting for hard working Blacks who were trying to succeed in a White Man's world.  Having grown up in Baltimore, Maryland, I certainly saw The Civil Rights Movement blowing up around me, but I was never on the inside looking out.  Rather, I pretty much stood back and watched it happen.

My take away from the movie "The Butler" was, "Did I really - REALLY?...know what it was like to live through that difficult era"? The answer: "Of course not", even though, I was there when it all happened.

Consequently, I departed the movie theater after viewing "The Butler', feeling ashamed that I didn't know, or maybe, didn't much care, what Black people felt during the 1950s and 60s, when our nation was ransacked by racial turmoil and divisiveness with The Vietnam War.  

Having seen the movie "The Butler", therefore, I wondered if the version I saw was the same, or somewhat different, than the one describe by David Denby in The New Yorker August 26, 2013.

Denby is a well known film critic. Nevertheless, his qualifications for writing his review of "The Butler' sure don't show up in his critique of the Lee Daniels movie, starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, about some ordinary lives of Blacks living on the inside of the history of the Civil Rights Movement.  

Rather than inform readers about the salient points of the movie, Denby writes a nonchalant review, thereby, missing the point of the story.  He beings with several paragraphs about another movie "The Last King of Scotland" (starring Whitaker), before he finally starts his critique, about two paragraphs down, writing, "As 'The Butler' tells it, Cecil Gaines was born in the twenties, on a cotton farm in Georgia that was run like a plantation....".    This ambiguous sentence sets the review reader up for a disingenuous plot.  

"As 'The Butler' tells it"...certainly doesn't reach out and grab a reader. Rather, it sets us up as though the plot might not be true. Yes, "The Butler" is a story about a real person who worked as a butler in the White House for several US Presidents. Some personal facts in the movie might not be true, but the narrator of the film is entitled to his veracity, as this is, after all, a movie.  Nevertheless, Denby sets the reader up for something like, "oh, yes...I forgot to mention, Cecil was born on a plantation..." (inappropriate yawn here).

In fact, the movie's opening scene looks like a pre-Civil War plantation with Negroes working just like slaves when one of the cruel owners of the property wants to have his way with a woman who happens to be the mother of one of the children workers, named Cecil Gaines.  This little boy witnesses his father murdered in front of him for challenging the abuse of his mother.  "As 'The Butler' tells it," is a condescending and desecrating statement describing the movie's opening.  Really, Mr. Denby, maybe you should live on a cotton plantation and work like a slave before you write another ambiguous opening about "The Butler".

I initially thought, hmmm, maybe Mr. Denby just didn't experience The Civil Rights Movement living in the United States; or, maybe he just didn't understand this racially divided time in American history.  But, not so! Mr. Denby is older than me and, therefore, has no excuse for snubbing "The Butler" with his uppity arrogance.

Neither me or anyone in my extended family will ever know what it was like to be born on a cotton plantation where land owners use their labor like objects of desire and beasts of burden.  

In the Lee Daniels movie, The Butler, starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, the story transports those of use who lived through the Civil Rights Movement inside what it was like to be among those who participated in this embarrassing and tumultuous time in American history.

The soul of the lead, "The Butler", Mr. Cecil Gaines, is the character's steadfast dignity while he lived through, inside as well as with those sadly conflicting times.  Gaines dedicated himself to his formal duties as a White House butler, while his family became enveloped in the challenging social fabric of their economic middle class status and day to day existence.  His oldest son, Lewis (David Oyelowo), falls out of this charade by joining the Civil Rights Movement and the Freedom Riders.  When this happens in Gaines' family, the functions he tends to at the White House are seriously challenged by reality. This crescendo builds, especially when Mr. Gaines witnesses world events unfold, first hand, in the presence of several US Presidents, who are framing policies impacting his two sons lives.  Eventually, this duplicity becomes critical when his younger son joins the Army to fight for a nation where he doesn't have equal Civil Rights, but, nevertheless, says he wants to fight "for my country", in The Vietnam War.

Mr. Denby's superficial analysis of "The Butler" lacks emotion. He seems to feel like there's just too much going on in the Daniels movie, like a parallel to the ridiculous escapades of Forrest Gump, only with a Black cast.  Indeed, Forrest Gump was also born in the South on a plantation, but we know, at the outset, that he's a special child who lives life like "a bowl of chocolates".  

A totally different experience is described by "The Butler", who lives his life organizing pretty service trays, while observing history through his dedication to hard work.  

Let's be honest, Forrest Gump was never a believable movie but it gains nearly 10 starts on the iMDb website reviews.

Conversely, "The Butler" story is based on a real person's life. Challenges experienced by the lead character, Gaines, are those only a person on the inside of these tumultuous times could possibly understand.  

"As 'The Butler' tells it"... is a riveting story packed with historically generated emotion.  Not only did Mr. Denby miss the point of the movie, he wrote a review that makes me even more embarrassed about my naive lack of empathy for The Civil Rights Movement.  

Although I'll always be a Caucasian, viewing Civil Rights on the outside while looking inside of the life of Black America, I will, hopefully, always remember to be humble in the presence of people who are on the inside looking out.  Those behind the camera, while filming "The Butler", should be very proud of their experience, which is now immortalized in a terrific film.

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