In recent years, Hollywood’s taken a new turn down the path less traveled. Turning away from the traditional narrative perspectives, the industry has begun to highlight a new side to history, and it’s about time.
It began with “The Help,” the critically-acclaimed film based on the bestseller of the same name, chronicling the lives of African American women in the Deep South and the trials they went through in the heat of Civil Rights. Since then, other films such as “12 Years a Slave” and “Lincoln” have turned away from the conventional angle and towards the oppressed, shedding new light on America’s history. It’s through these angles that the film industry is beginning to tell the real story of America.
“The Butler” is no different. Based on the true (but loosely followed) story of Eugene Allen, the film follows him (renamed Cecil Gaines in the film), a man who worked for over 30 years and eight administrations in the White House. Beginning as a simple dish washer and kitchen helper during the Eisenhower administration, Allen eventually worked his way up and retired as head butler in 1986 under President Ronald Reagan. The Butler shows his journey from boy to butler, in a time where equality wasn’t more than an ideal, in other words, an American fantasy.
If there’s one thing Butler got right, it was the state of each decade. The depictions of the segregation, inequality and the war on race were powerful. Weaving in real footage along with the reenactments, the film covers a broad range of Civil Rights events such as the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and historical protests. Further depictions of the Vietnam War take a close look as the world during the ’60s and ’70s.
It might sound strange, but I was glad to see that the reenactments were graphic. The brutality of those events should never be watered down or forgotten, and to see the full extent of the tension and violence is a reminder that applies to every American.
Sliding along from era to era, the film also did a great job adjusting the characters and environments to the different decades. Unfortunately, the afros and track suits of the ’70s and ’80s did make a few appearances, but thankfully, they were brief (and no more painful than the occasional Crocs sighting).
But while the scenes and characters were consistent, I was somewhat disappointed with the presidential characterizations. Other than the fact that Robin Williams was playing a normal person, I couldn’t help but notice the slight liberal slant of the film. The few conservative presidents that were characters, Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan (Ford was missing in action) were all painted, to some extent, as villains.
For every Democratic figure that stood championing equal rights, it seemed there were two monster conservatives waiting around the corner. At one point in Butler, the Reagans are depicted in a somewhat bigoted light for inviting the Allens to a State dinner where the hints of racial separation still endure. And while I’m not defending Nixon, I think it’s worth pointing out that men like Reagan were not responsible for the public’s inclinations. Also, though he may have opposed some legislation regarding Civil Rights, this doesn’t mean that he opposed the movement.
All in all, “The Butler” is a hit. Yes, there were some parts I wasn’t fond of, but ultimately, the depictions of history and the events that occurred during Gaines’ life were on point. No one can deny it — the 1960s defined us, and the Civil Rights movement is arguably one of most influential chain of events in American history. Among the hundreds of books, films and shows have been written about it, “The Butler” stands alone.
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By Ashleigh Atasoy