The Butler Did It

Lee Daniels’ film “The Butler” is based on a panorama of events which happened during the life of Eugene Allen’s tenure at the White House from 1952 to 1986, serving eight presidents before his retirement.  Though buzz has it that Forest Whitaker as The Butler will be nominated for an Oscar for best actor, it is Oprah Winfrey whose role as his wife stole the show.  Unlike many films, which usually depict the life of African Americans in the harshest, crudest and most non-sensitive of terms, this film hits at a core of who we are not previously depicted or appreciated by the masses even among our own.

Though many will criticize whether some of the material in the movie was accurate, the points are being missed in overlooking the quilt and historical collage captured brilliantly with celluloid footage.  In search of a political nostalgia which never truly was from the protest demonstrations to the rise of the black power movement to President John F. Kennedy’s Assassination to “Soul Train,” the archives of history force us to face our past. 

Robin Williams as President Dwight Eisenhower forcibly intervenes in 1957 insuring the safety of ‘the Little Rock Nine’ as Governor Faubus of Arkansas defied his orders.  President Reagan, and his wife Nancy, regardless of his political motives is shown as being the first President to invite “The Butler” to a state dinner which spoke volumes. This film provides a unique opportunity for those willing to engage in a conversation of honesty about the fate of too many black Americans trapped in a mindset which still blames the brutality of slavery and neglects the unwillingness of too many to get an education up against an establishment which would like to pretend that we are all equal, and there are no barriers to our human progress.

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In its overkill on the Obama presidential election which demonstrates a film bias, the ending does a good job illustrating why Mr. Obama has obtained so much unearned loyalty among black Americans.  While some are upset by the use of Jane Fonda to play Nancy Reagan or even the supposition that President Reagan reportedly didn’t fight hard enough to end apartheid in South Africa, easily overlooked is the fact that it was a series of Republican Presidents whose actions proved liberating for blacks here at home. 

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Like no other, so many layers of black life came to life in this movie – The Butler.    There is the dual nature of being black and two faced where one side shows blacks as non-threatening to assuage the fear of many whites while, with each other, a coarser side is shown which in modern day is increasingly not being suppressed.  The dichotomies, which exist in many black families, are also featured which still divide us to this day based on education, aspirations, money and station in life.  Though the domestics did as Martin Luther King, Jr. noted, played an important role in the life of the American Negro, these were they who had jobs but were relegated to the status of upper lower and maybe a lower middle class existence in Negro communities, which unfortunately lingers even today.

I wasn’t privy to the White House conversations that butlers often heard, but I do know these men without security clearances held and kept secrets the likes of which were seldom passed on.  Since Mr. Euguene Allen (1919-2010) has passed on, I am sure most of those secrets were taken with him to the grave.  But there are other stories such as:

Allen and other workers who served presidents featured in a 32-minute documentary, Workers at the White House, directed by Marjorie Hunt (released on a 2009 DVD).  A 1979 NBC television miniseries Backstairs at the White House  based on the book My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House by Lillian Rogers Parks (with Frances Spatz Leighton) is also the story of behind-the-scenes workings of the White House and the relationship between the staff and the First Families. Workers: Traditions and Memories by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

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