The Butler: Proving that Movies About Racism Still Need to be Made

the-butler-movie-posterLee Daniel’s The Butler (Wikipedia/IMDB) was another pirated DVD (白宫管家) I recently purchased to watch, though I found that it added to PPStream just a day or two later.

The movie features an ensemble cast with Forest Whitaker (whom I’m still annoyed with from The Experiment [Wikipedia/IMDB]) in the lead role of Cecil Gaines, a black man who learns how to work as a servant for white employers, eventually getting a job in the White House. As the history of political race-relations plays out in the White House over the terms of multiple American presidents (from Eishenhower to Obama), we see how race-relations also estranges Cecil from his son Louis. The father believes in keeping his head down, just thankful for the opportunities he’s had to improve life for himself and his family, while the son chafes at the persistent racial inequality, becoming an activist pushing for change in society, first as a pacifist following Martin Luther King and later momentarily as a militant Black Panther.


The IMDB message boards for this movie are not only a testament to the pervasive ignorance of many Americans–who really should know better after a K-12 education–but also the obnoxious resentment of many white Americans who can’t seem to behold a movie involving racism without feeling indignant and persecuted. Then there is the consistent characterization of movies involving racism as “propaganda” by by some, articulated with an assortment of conspiracy theories. As someone who lives in China, I can’t help but feel the word “propaganda” is being disastrously cheapened by some circles in the United States.

I know I shouldn’t expect so much from the message boards of any massively popular site, but has politics and political posturing gotten this bad in the US?

For example, this IMDB forum thread reprinting an article by Michael Reagan, the son of former President Ronald Reagan, criticizing “Hollywood’s creative propagandists” and “liberal hacks” for the portrayal of his father in the movie:

Portraying Ronald Reagan as a racist because he was in favor of lifting economic sanctions against South Africa is simplistic and dishonest.

If you knew my father, you’d know he was the last person on Earth you would call a racist.

I can’t identify with this outrage because when I watched the movie, I didn’t get the feeling Reagan was being portrayed as a racist at all, especially on the balance of the other scenes involving Reagan. I suppose if a viewer wasn’t familiar with Reagan’s reasons (fear of Communism) and that Reagan reversed his position later, then I guess that viewer might interpret that one scene as Reagan’s “racism”. I instead saw it as just another tale of the race-related issues the succession of American presidents faced during Cecil’s years at the White House. In fact, I felt the movie did a good job of not making any of the various presidents look perfectly good or bad.

If Strong had gotten his “facts” from the Reagan biographies, he’d have learned that when my father was playing football at Eureka College one of his best friends was a black teammate.

I know there’s no reason for me to expect this, but I would’ve thought Michael Reagan, the son of an American president, was educated enough to know that the “I can’t be racist because I have a X friend/wife/etc.” argument is pretty damn stupid. Why do people think this? Do they not understand the definition of “racism”?


Annoyances with the peanut gallery aside, The Butler overall never quite came together for me to consider it a movie I’d strongly recommend. You’ll be reminded of Forrest Gump (Wikipedia/IMDB), but it is never quite as touching (or randomly cute, comical, and clever). It’s not as epic or whimsical.

If you’re already familiar with America’s history of race-relations, you won’t learn anything new or be prompted to think very much, so you end up just watching to see what actors appear in the movie or how the actors impersonate the various presidents and notable historical figures. There’s entertainment value in that, but it’s limited. If however you’re not already familiar, then I suppose you might learn something and the movie will thus be more poignant to you. Of course, you might also just end up resenting the movie’s entire premise about racism, but that might then say a bit about your own racial politics.

3/5 stars.

I’m still amused by Lenny Kravitz being in movies.


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