About a week and a half ago, I saw the film, The Butler. And I was quite impressed. I think that it could rival Lincoln in terms of overall quality. The acting, as you can probably guess from the slew of talented cast members, is great. However, I thought I would focus on its merits as a historical film. People who wish to avoid spoilers are advised to quit reading now.
The Butler does a good job of portraying the horrors of Jim Crow. The film starts off in a 1920s Georgia cotton field, and the protagonist, Cecil (based on a real figure named Ernest), witnesses his father shot by his white employer after objecting to said employer’s sexual assault of his wife, Cecil’s mother. Cecil, keep in mind, is still a child at this point. The remainder of the film’s first, brief but potent, act is devoted to showing Cecil’s hard, persecuted, even Hellish childhood. Some people may complain that the film is demonizing white people, but in fact, it is simply giving an accurate depiction of the Jim Crow. It will become clear later on that the film is most definitely NOT anti-white.
The main body of the film starts with Cecil being offered a job as the White House butler for President Dwight Eisenhower. In real life, Ernest began work under Harry Truman. I suspect that this part of the story was changed for two reasons. First of all, Truman’s presidency was in its last year when Ernest began working at the White House, and there may have been a feeling that it would be pointless to have Truman get a little bit of screen time, only to be quickly replaced by Eisenhower, who gets a fairly important role. Second, Truman had a great deal in common with LBJ, who is introduced later on. They were both lovers of hardcore profanity. There were both Southerners who could sometimes have their Southern credentials questioned–Truman’s Missouri roots made some people view him as a Midwesterner, and LBJ’s Texas roots made some people view him as a Southwesterner. Perhaps more importantly in the context of the film, Truman did more to promote the rights of blacks than any president since at least Benjamin Harrison, yet he also made a slew of racist statements in public and private. LBJ probably did more to promote the rights of blacks than any president since Ulysses S. Grant. He also began his career as a segregationist and was still using racial slurs worthy of Riley Cooper while serving as president. A serious case could be made that having both Truman and LBJ depicted in the film would have felt repetitive.
The depictions of Eisenhower and JFK, while by no means bad, suffer some from rose-colored glasses. Eisenhower is portrayed by Robin Williams, and while I am a big fan of Williams’s work, I can’t help but wonder if he played Eisenhower as a bit too much of a softie. The former general is portrayed as reluctant to send federal troops to Little Rock, which he of course ends up doing, for fear of another civil war. However, Eisenhower’s ambiguities and contradictions on race are not done justice. Evidence suggests that Eisenhower may have used the n-word. It is documented that as an Army general, he favored continuing racial segregation in the military. He opposed workplace protection laws for African Americans. Certainly, he played an important role in civil rights reforms, especially in the case of Little Rock. But I cannot help but feel that the movie went too far in the direction of hagiography with “Ike.” JFK’s colorful infidelities are glossed over, and he is portrayed as being eager to pass civil rights legislation mainly out of a sincere desire for justice. I could not help but feel that this characterization is more accurate for Robert and Edward than for John. For instance, Robert Kennedy was much quicker than his big brother to begin pushing aggressively for civil rights. By the time JFK began strongly promoting civil rights, he was backed into a corner by increasing anger from activists, very bad international publicity that could hurt the U.S. in the Cold War, and the knowledge that some liberal Republican hungry for the presidency might get the GOP presidential nomination in 1964 and get the lion’s share of the black vote. I think that the film would have been well-served to cast another actor to play Robert Kennedy and give him some of the scenes that were instead given to John.
LBJ, Nixon, and Reagan are all portrayed superbly. I thought that the filmmakers might shy away from LBJ’s aforementioned racism. I was wrong. The Butler depicts both his use of the n word and his overall crudeness. In one scene that it is as well acted as it is disturbing, Johnson fires off racial slur-laden instructions at Cecil while sitting on a toilet surrounded by his beagles. He is not portrayed without some redeeming qualities, however, as he is also shown to have legitimate concern for the fate of black Americans. I really wish that they had included at least one scene with Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, who was a sincere believer and staunch advocate of racial equality throughout his political career. I think that there could have been a very heartwarming scene between him and Cecil. Still, Humphrey, like most vice presidents who never reached the Oval Office, is largely forgotten. John Cusack wonderfully captures the shifty mannerisms of Richard Nixon. My one complaint with his depiction involves a scene in which, while serving as Eisenhower’s vice president, he approaches Cecil and other black White House employees and attempts to enlist their support in his bid for president. In an effort to keep them from supporting JFK, he calls the Democratic contender a, “rich f@#% up.” I cannot say for sure whether this scene is based in fact, but my inclination is that Nixon would have been more inclined to bring up the fact that, in 1960, his record on voting rights was actually superior to that of Kennedy. Of course, this goes against the way that the filmmakers wanted to portray both presidents. Ronald Reagan’s race hustling is depicted nicely. In one scene, he declares firmly that he will veto legislation that imposes sanctions on South Africa. Reagan’s coddling of South Africa’s apartheid regime, seemingly so at odds with his generally aggressive foreign policy, has not received enough attention but was an important way of maintaining his political coalition.
Finally, the struggle for racial justice is portrayed deftly. The sit-ins and Freedom Rides appear frighteningly realistic, making it possible for viewers to fully grasp the bravery of the activists, who endured terrible violence without fighting back. It also showcases the cowardice of the violent racists, who attacked people they knew would not fight back. I also really liked how white civil rights activists were depicted along with the black civil rights activists, reminding viewers that some whites stood up for racial equality when it was unpopular. We also see both the good and bad aspects of the Black Panther Party and the link between the fight against Jim Crow and the fight against apartheid. One of the best scenes is when Cecil is reunited at an anti-apartheid protest with his estranged son, Louis, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. Finally, Louis and Cecil live to see the election of our nation’s first black president, though Cecil’s wife, Gloria, dies just before Barack Obama wins.