August 25, 2013 Leave a comment
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of over 200,000 people.
Even those of us like myself who are white and old enough to remember that event find it difficult to recall the perilous struggle of those involved in the American Civil Rights movement.
Last week the independently produced movie The Butler was released starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, and a stellar cast of other well-known actors. Today I went and saw it and found it to be extremely moving.
The movie traces the history of the American Black experience through the eyes of a single man over a period spanning eight decades. He is Cecil Gaines, a black man raised on a cotton plantation who witnesses horrifying brutality as a boy before leaving to find employment as a hotel waiter and is eventually selected to become a butler at the White House. He serves as a butler to eight presidents, from Eisenhower through Reagan.
Ever silent, observant and inconspicuous (invisible really), Gaines witnesses the inner workings of the White House through the period of the civil rights movement and beyond. His necessary passive detachment from the events of the day is contrasted with that of his oldest son, who becomes involved with the civil rights movement, becomes a Freedom Rider, is present when Martin Luther King is assassinated, and for a time becomes part of the radical Black Panther movement.
The film is about the silent suffering of those contending with benign forms of racism and the violent suffering of those struggling with its overt manifestations. The film dramatically juxtaposes these two is several memorable scenes. It is about broken lives and the courage to continue on each day – to do what one must do. It is about tenacity, perseverance, and commitment to one’s self and to others. It is, all in all, a remarkable story.
In the opening week of the film’s release over one third of those coming to see it in the U.S. were African-Americans. It was as if they were waiting for this story to be told. Leonard Pitts Jr., in the National Memo, reports seeing elderly African-Americans bringing their grandchildren in tow to watch the movie. He emphasizes that, “This isn’t your average summer movie crowd.” It is as if they have brought their grandchildren to see The Truth – as in “The Truth of How Things Were, and how that shades and shapes How Things Are.”
The Butler tells us the truth about America’s racist past, but the story itself is fiction. Anyone watching the film should understand that it is not a documentary, and it is not a personal biography. It is a fictional narrative created around real historical events.
The butler in question did serve in the White House for 34 years to eight Presidents. His real name is Eugene Allen; he died in 2010. The bare outline of his life and career provide the framework for the story. But the details of his childhood and his interactions with his wife, neighbours, and two sons are fictional creations. (A very good summary of the film’s adaptation is found here.) They provide the necessary elements for a gripping drama, and that drama is compelling.
The depiction of the African-American experience during those years is, unfortunately, all too true. The repeated scenes of racial bigotry depict actual events – the lynchings, the sit-ins, the Freedom Riders, the violence – they are all part of that history. And it is very unsettling.
The Truth needs to be told, even (or especially) when it is painful. Aging African-Americans know the truth of their experiences in the long and difficult struggles to end segregation. They know the struggles for fair treatment that continue even today. The New York Times reported this week that
According to a Pew Research Center poll released Thursday, nearly twice as many blacks as whites say that blacks are treated less fairly by the police. More than twice as many blacks as whites say that blacks are treated less fairly by the courts. And about three times as many blacks as whites say that blacks are treated less fairly than whites at work, in stores or restaurants, in public schools and by the health care system.
We white folks need to know the Truth of these realities too. Most of us are out of touch with the black American experience. We are not directly affected by it. It is not our story. It is not our history. It is not our experience. As Paul Waldman recently stated in his essay in The American Prospect on “the Privilege of Whiteness,”
[I]n all my years I’ve never been stopped by a cop who just wanted to know who I was and what I was up to. I’ve never been accused of “furtive movements,” the rationale New York City police use for the hundreds of thousands of times every year they question black and Hispanic men. I’ve never been frisked on the street, and nobody has ever responded with fear when I got in an elevator. That’s not because of my inherent personal virtue. It’s because I’m white.
I will never have to sit my children down and give them a lengthy talk about what to do and not to do when they encounter the police. That’s the talk so many black parents make sure to give their children, one filled with detailed instructions about how to not appear threatening, how to diffuse tension, what to do with your hands when you get pulled over, and how to end the encounter without being arrested or beaten.
My hope is that The Butler will not only help the grandchildren of those who went through the civil rights movement to understand what that struggle was about. My hope is that it will help all of us to understand what was a stake and what remains at stake in the ongoing struggle for human rights today.