Editor's note: "Lee Daniels' The Butler" has been in theaters for several weeks now, but it continues to spark debate about its perspective on a seismic period in African American history. We asked a leading scholar of the civil rights movement, Dr. Peniel E. Joseph, to see the movie and share his thoughts. Joseph is a professor at Tufts University whose books include "Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America" and "Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Obama."
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" is, by any conventional measure, a rarity: a major Hollywood film production that focuses on African American history by using a largely black cast to tell the story. And this is not just any story. The film, which stars Forrest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, details a sort of counter-narrative of the civil rights era. It begins during the racially oppressive Eisenhower era and proceeds through the civil rights movement's heroic period in the early 1960s through the tumultuous and revolutionary Black Power struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s all the way to Barack Obama's watershed 2008 election.
The main narrative begins in 1957 with Cecil Gaines happily married with two kids and working at a fancy hotel. He's soon offered a job as White House butler and is ecstatic at his good fortune. But tensions and anxieties bubble beneath the surface of his picturesque family life, as his oldest son Lewis chafes at his father's accommodation.
"The Butler" situates the Gaines' family life against the backdrop of the nation’s unfolding civil rights revolution. To be sure, what follows bares the uneven hit-or-miss quality of most historically driven cinema. The movie's depiction of the Black Panthers falls largely flat, the victim of being overwhelmed by the group's iconography at the expense of a three dimensional characterization of young people who were self-identified revolutionaries.
The Panthers are portrayed more as a group of sloganeering radicals (with large, over the top afros) rather than perhaps the most important group of revolutionaries America has ever produced. "Night Catches Us," an overlooked independent gem that tells the story of Black Panthers in Philadelphia in the mid 1970s, remains the best cinematic depiction of this organization.
Yet "The Butler" is precisely valuable for the large swaths of history that it gets right. The film's observant, subtle narration of the civil rights movement's heroic period, especially the lunch counter sit-in movement and Freedom Rides, are pitch perfect. In doing so, it offers a powerful cinematic corrective to past failures and, in many instances, is revelatory in its deft treatment of America's racial history.
To be sure, the film's cameos of notable actors playing white presidents hews to the popular belief that the only way to tell a black story is through white historical characters and actors. The most recent example, of course, is the film "Lincoln," which told the story of emancipation by deleting African American characters such as Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist who met with president Lincoln three times and became the president's racial conscience on the matter of slavery and freedom.
When it comes to America’s tortured racial history, the cinematic approach has been to let white characters speak for, about, and in lieu of blacks. The 1989 film "Mississippi Burning" invented two white protagonists (one of whom was an FBI agent) to save the day during 1964's bloody but triumphant Freedom Summer (an effort at interracial democracy in the south that featured hundreds of white volunteers), even though the law enforcement sided with white terrorists during the events the film depicts.
Rather than allowing black activists -- such as Stokely Carmichael who led Greenwood, Mississippi’s local project that summer -- to speak, the film obscenely invented a scenario that cast villains as saviors and portrayed genuine heroes as helpless victims. "Mississippi Burning" sparked rightful outrage from activists and historians for willful dissemblance in changing the heroes of Mississippi's 1964 Freedom Summer from black students and white volunteers to white FBI agents.
In contrast, "The Butler" presents a depiction of civil rights era violence that's powerful and moving. It's also unusual, since Hollywood has studiously avoided a film that accurately explores racial violence during the 1960s.