This past week, I took in a showing of director Lee Daniels’ latest offering, The Butler. Loosely based on the true story of White House butler Eugene Allen, the movie consists of a strung-together series of vignettes depicting historical events starting in the middle of the Eisenhower administration forward, not unlike an angstier Forrest Gump. The movie is remarkable not only for its standard offering of Hollywood tropes, but also for its strident moralizing.
Although Daniels seeks to tell the story of the American Civil Rights movement through the eyes of a man who served in eight different administrations, his simplistic and nuance-free presentation of events are a disservice to Allen’s remarkable life story. Facts or points of view which do not mesh with Daniels’ interpretation of history conveniently escape mention, like Lyndon Johnson’s dogged opposition to the 1957 Civil Rights Act eventually signed into law by President Eisenhower.
The movie attempts to invoke the moral righteousness and clarity of the Civil Rights movement in order to affix it to issues of a later time that aren’t quite so straightforward. The legally-enforced segregation of the Jim Crow South simply does not have a contemporary parallel, and Daniels does little to show this. Vivid scenes of Klan rallies, police beatings and race riots in the 1950’s and 60’s give way in short order to the early 1980’s issue of the apartheid regime in South Africa with very little recognition or acknowledgment of progress in American race relations.
President Ronald Reagan may well have been misguided in his approach to the oppressive South African regime (valid Cold War concerns regarding the region suggest otherwise), but his actions bear no resemblance to the shameful, tacit acceptance of de jure racial inequality by preceding generations. Indeed, for a movie ostensibly about justice and human dignity, President Reagan ought to have scored at least a few points for challenging the subjugation and oppression of almost three hundred million people in the Soviet Union, but of course this wouldn’t fit Mr. Daniels’s narrative.
The civil rights advocates of today often lay claim to the kind of courage and righteousness displayed by genuine heroes like John Lewis, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr. in standing up to the brutality of Jim Crow, yet the civil rights concerns of today are simply not the same as fifty years ago. The truth is, many of those who claim to champion the cause of civil rights today do not have enough suitable villains against whom to direct their ire.
Just recently, former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young appeared on MSNBC to say this about the death of Trayvon Martin: “We’ve had a string of martyrs from the time of Emmett Till. Every generation has its martyrs, and they’re going to continue.” Martin’s death was certainly a tragedy and racism may have played a part in his death and subsequent homicide investigation, but Young errs greatly in comparing the hapless George Zimmerman to the men who admitted to kidnapping, torturing and killing a fourteen-year-old boy. In the end, appropriately, the prosecution in the Zimmerman case not only failed to prove racial impetus — it lost entirely.
In the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict, Stevie Wonder stated he will not perform in any state with “Stand Your Ground” laws on the books, even though these laws were not even at issue during the trial; ESPN columnist and former editor of XXL magazine Scoop Jackson wrote that he was, “Through, done, over with Florida and every sports entity, program, organization represented by the state” because of the trial — although it is unclear how Jackson plans to advance the cause of civil rights by watching Falcons games instead of Jaguars games. Later in the same article Jackson wrote what amounted to an admission that he is tilting at windmills: “I realize in the end this gesture might only make me feel better about myself. As if I’ve done something.”
The stain of racism and Jim Crow still linger over the United States, and the struggle for equal opportunity and justice for all remains a worthy cause. But the injustices faced during the days of Jim Crow have largely been banished to history books and sappy, self-important movies.
That fact ought to be celebrated — not glossed over or, worse, denied so we can feel good about having “done something.”
—Will Belcher is a senior studying political science.