Sunday, August 18, 2013

"The Butler" Demonstrates the Progress We've Made with Civil Rights and the Distance We Have to Go!

Spoiler Alert: If you haven't seen the movie yet and are planning to go this week, you may want to wait to read this review until after you've seen it.

The movie "The Butler" is based on a True Story. The story begins when Cecil Gaines is about 10 years old. His family worked on a cotton farm. His parents and his siblings were hard at work, picking cotton. His father showed Cecil how to pick the crop. During this instruction, the cruel landowner grabbed Cecil's mother and took her off to a shanty on the side of the cotton field. Cecil starts to protest, but his father hushes him saying he cannot say anything to "The Man." All the farmworkers hear his mother's screams and Cecil asked, "Daddy...aren't you going to do anything?" His father slowly shook his head and looked down. When the landowner came out of the shed pulling up his pants, Cecil looked to his Dad. As the landowner walked by, Cecil's Dad stood up and glared at the landowner. The landowner glared back, took out his gun and shot his Dad square in the forehead. He fell over, dead. Cecil and the farmworkers were shocked, mouths open, in fear. The landowner's mother ran outside when she heard the noise. She too stood in shock, then she glared at her son as he brushed past her and went inside the house. She turned to the farmworkers and ordered them to bury Cecil's dad. She then turned to Cecil, grabbing him around his shoulders and said, "Come inside boy. We're going to make you a "House Niggah."

Cecil, in shock, follows her into the house and begins his training. The elder House Worker trains him how to "Serve the Man." He must have two faces: one for "The Man" and one for his own people. Cecil learns how to cater to the Master's every whim and never look him in the eye. "The room should feel empty when you're in it."

So begins The Butler's life of Service to "The Man." Cecil grew to a young man (now played by Forest Whitaker) and moved to the city where he found a job in a bakery. Here he learned more lessons, more bowing, scraping and serving. Then he moved to Washington DC and worked in a large, majestic Hotel that catered to those who worked in Government. He did his job well and was spotted by someone who worked for the White House who recommended Cecil for a job as a Server in the White House. Cecil adapts well and makes friends with many of his fellow servers.

Before he left the hotel, he met and married Gloria (Oprah Winfrey). She had been a maid at the hotel. Where Cecil is quiet, demure and soft-spoken, Gloria is loud, boisterous, allowing herself to "hang out" all over the place with her wild hair, clothes and eyes. Cecil was always working which left plenty of time for Gloria to throw house parties and even have time for a quick affair with her neighbor's husband.

They raised two sons. They were good young men. The younger son, Charlie, was an obedient son who tried to please his parents, loved his brother and eventually joined the military and was killed in Vietnam. The older son, Louis, loved his parents but was closer to his mother. He finished high school and went to college. There he participated in the Civil Rights Movement, joining Dr. King in peaceful protests, from lunch counters to Freedom Riders. Cecil was disappointed in him, that he was not adapting and conforming to the current society's norm.

Perhaps the most important scene in the movie was when the older son, Louis, came home to dinner, bringing along a young woman from college who was a fellow protester. They came dressed in Berets and Afros. Cecil was dressed in a conservative sweater and Gloria in a dress. Gloria talked glowingly about Sidney Poitier in "In the Heat of the Night." Louis said, "Sidney Poitier is the White Man's fantasy of what the White Man wants us to be." Cecil said, "What are you talking about? He's breaking down barriers for all of us." Louis responds, "He's teaching us how to be White. Sidney Poitier ain't nothing but a rich Uncle Tom." Cecil, now angry, says, "Get the Hell outta my house." Chaos erupts. Cecil tries to shove his son away from the table while Gloria attempts to calm everyone down. Then Louis shouts, "I'm sorry, Mr. Butler, I didn't mean to make fun of your hero." To which Gloria abruptly slaps her son. "That Butler brought us to where we are today." Louis, shocked, leaves the house with his friend.

Throughout the movie we see several historic moments that occurred throughout various Presidencies, from Eisenhower to Kennedy to LBJ to Nixon to Ford, Jimmy Carter, Reagan and finally to Obama.

We also see several historic moments regarding Racism in America, the Civil Rights Movement - including the assassination of Martin Luther King and the murder of Emmett Till.

The essence of the film was the conflict between Father and Son.
The Father, Cecil, after seeing so much cruelty and racism as a child, accepted the fact he was a Black Man living in a White Man's world and modified his behavior to cater and serve "The Man." Cecil felt it was his duty to teach this to his son. He believed that the son was causing more trouble for himself and his family by refusing to accept his beliefs and protesting. He believed his son was a radical.

The son, Louis, believed that All Men are created equal and in order to make change happen, he must participate in the Civil Rights movement and peacefully protest, regardless the consequences. Though he wanted a better relationship with his Dad, Louis felt it was his duty not to conform as his father had and continue to participate in the movement.

Towards the end of the film, Cecil looked back on his life. He worked hard and did his best to raise a good family. Cecil was recognized for his Service to The Man, but was never truly accepted as an equal.

It wasn't until Barack Obama was elected that Cecil looked back at pictures of his son's participation in the Civil Rights movement -- his being jailed, being beaten, the pain he had to endure, his resilience to continue the fight -- and he realized that his son was a hero.

The last scene of the picture shows Cecil visiting Louis, now a Professor teaching young students about equality. Cecil, at last, reconciled with his son.
I had mixed feelings about the movie. The acting was excellent. Forest Whitaker was so understated and believable. Oprah was good too, showing raw emotion and exposing her vulnerabilities. David Oyelowo -- who played Louis, reminded me of the awakenings we all felt in the 60s and 70s. Television allowed us all to see the truth. Minorities, especially Blacks, were treated as 2nd class citizens. In a country where our founding fathers vowed ALL PEOPLE were created equal, Television allowed us to see the truth. Racism was rampant. One hundred years after the Civil War, minorities were treated disparately and non equally.

My mixed feelings came from seeing the raw depth of racism in action. Seeing the hate filled glares, the beatings, the murders and the police brutality was heart wrenching.

In the sixties, the vast majority of Americans accepted this unequal treatment of people. Even the minorities themselves accepted this treatment and conformed their own behavior to it.

It took a lifetime for Cecil to realize the truth. It wasn't until the last years of his life that he realized his son Louis was right. Since Cecil was a child, he expected the abuse and conditioned his own behavior to accept it. It was difficult for him to understand that the abuse was wrong and by his own behaviors, he was condoning the abuse and allowing it to continue. He couldn't understand why his son was unwilling to continue to cycle.

Cecil finally realized it was necessary for the facts to be televised. It was necessary to protest. It was necessary to be willing to be jailed and worse -- in order for the needed changes to occur.

So the reason that the Sidney Poitier "Slap" is the most important scene in the film is because it was at that moment, that very moment, that anyone watching and truly understanding what was occurring in the film understood that Louis was right. What Sidney Poitier was doing in "In the Heat of the Night" was exactly what Cecil was attempting to teach Louis -- How to Act White in order to be acceptable to "The Man." 

In today's experience, this is called "Assimilation." Tom Tancredo and Steve King claim assimilation means all minority groups must conform to the White Northern European standards established in America.

It is obvious our country has come a long way since the sixties.
But it is just as obvious that we still have a long way to go.

It is critically important that we continue to use all methods of communication (TV, Internet, Movies) and speak the truth when injustice occurs.
Afterall, our great country was founded on the fact that ALL PEOPLE are Created Equal.

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