movies matter | criticism by maryann johanson
Wed Aug 14 2013, 10:41am | 18 comments
Oh, wow, this looks amazing. I love stories like this, about people caught up in the sweep of history. And what a fantastic cast! I didn’t realize Oprah Winfrey was still acting. Cool.
No U.K. release date yet. Damn.
On preson’s treasure is another person’s trash, I guess. That looks just godawful. Schmaltzy strings? Check. Allegedly inspirational story about a black man who spends his life in servitude to white people? Check. The ones who made civil rights history were the freedom riders, the black panthers, and other people involved in the movement at the time, not some guy who happened to have the president’s ear at the time. They were the people who made such a ruckus that they couldn’t be ignored or denied. Seriously, what is it with the JFK worship? To say that the butler became part of history is just laughable. Did Louis XIV’s butler make history? Non-political people simply do not make political history: making history demands involvement and being non-political eschews involvement. See a contradiction here? Malcolm X this ain’t.
RE: Non-political people simply do not make political history
George Eliot, Middlemarch:
“for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
The point isn’t about whether your one’s acts make the headlines and become famous or whether they go unnoticed, but about whether one gets involved, as what I wrote after the colon that you ignored in your quote makes clear.
Its the strings that make me weary, really. I just don’t trust trailers anymore either, so while it seems that they’re trying to make it seem as though “the butler did it”, on a closer look, it looks more like its borrowing (to put it mildly) from Forrest Gump, Where the story of a single man is told against the backdrop of his time, to better understand the two I guess.
Of course, it could still be a bad movie, or worse, Oscar bait. But its got me interested at least.
I think it’s more like your neighbor–who happens to be gay or an illegal immigrant–having a friendly conversation with you and inviting you to lunch. When it’s time to vote, you might think, “If I vote for the right-wing position, I’ll be taking rights away from my friend.”
I read what you wrote. I disagree with you about how history is made. I disagree with your notion about “political history” (as opposed to what, just plain history?). And it all seems a bit of overkill about a movie that isn’t even out yet.
And the quote from Eliot does address your post, in every respect. It’s not about fame or being noticed, and it has subtle things to say about getting involved and changing the world that you obviously missed.
By the way, wasn’t a movie like “The King’s Speech” about a non-political person who indirectly shapes history? There is a long tradition of movies about the little guy or little woman who has a huge impact on events, and tons of historians who have dumped the “big man” view of history to concentrate on how history is shaped and determined by other forces.
In order for that to happen, you have to be aware that they’re gay or an illegal immigrant and just your neighbour making you aware of that fact is a political act.
I don’t buy the big man version of history myself. The point is that change requires action: that may take many forms, some subtle, some in your face, but action nonetheless. My own views are closer to Frederick Douglass:
“The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. … If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.”
As far as The King’s Speech goes, I know I’m in the minority but I honestly thought it was a terribly overpraised movie that seriously overblew his historical impact. That aside, how is a speech to rally the nation around war with Germany not political?
I’m curious what specifically bothered you about the trailer. Given that he is clearly neither a Freedom Rider nor a Black Panther, you seem to be open to subtler forms of action that the trailer doesn’t seem to rule out.
If “Have you met my fiance Gabe?” is a political act, then why isn’t it a political act for the butler to say, “Did I show you this picture of my son, Mr. President? He’s fighting in Vietnam”?
I got this distinct impression from the trailer that it espouses being apolitical at the expense of action. The first line of the trailer is him being asked if he’s political and answering no. Further, the story of a black man elevating himself through servitude seems to me plain wrong. I get that this happens, but I don’t think that it’s something to be celebrated. The only time he is ever shown to become agitated enough to object to anything is when his son (which is portrayed in an unsympathetic manner as an ingrate at that moment) is shown to be a black panther. Other than that, he’s just a consumate professional: say nothing, don’t take chances, and please, whatever you do, don’t rock the boat. If I’m correct about this, that seems to me like a very dangerous message to send people.
RE: I got this distinct impression from the trailer that it espouses being apolitical at the expense of action.
I get the impression from the trailer is simply pointing out that a black person who was involved in politics would not be hired for the White House domestic staff. I would think that this restriction would apply to a number of jobs (just as political activity on the part of spouses or children would be strongly discouraged). This is not the same as advocating being apolitical at the expense of action.
RE: Further, the story of a black man elevating himself through servitude seems to me plain wrong.
Here, I would suggest that your understanding of history and the Civil Rights struggle in America is severely flawed. An easy example that comes to mind is how the work of A. Philip Randolph in organizing black sleeping car porters helped form the strategy of other civil rights’ efforts.
See also here the 1982 documentary, “Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle,” to bring this back to a movie related discussion.
1- That’s not shown in the trailer.
2- If it had been, it could still be spun any number of ways, from “Look how proud we are that our boy is fighting over there for this country” to “Look, asshole, you’re putting my son’s life in danger over BS.” Sometimes you have to be direct.
3- If the president doesn’t care much about your son’s life, that’s hardly the type of thing that would likely change his mind. In fact, this is the type of thing that is exceedingly easy to ignore for someone who just doesn’t care. Even if the President does care, that hardly negates the political pressures that led to the war in the first place, and is not likely to be terribly efficient as a result.
4- Acting like that recognizes the legitimacy of the Presidential authority to send these boys over in Vietnam or wherever in the first place. Doing that automatically weakens one’s position.
We’ll have to disagree about the first part about what the film champions. Just out of curiosity, what is is specifically that you think I misunderstand about the civil rights struggle and that I should be paying attention to when watching these films? May I first point out that the main character of the film is not in the civil rights struggle. He has his job because he steers clear of things like that. So why allege misunderstanding of the civil rights struggle by mentioning A. Philipp Randolph’s union organizing and collective action when this is precisely the type of thing that the The Butler’s main character doesn’t do and, in fact, avoids? In fact, I think the work of A Philipp Randolph is better understood as challenging servitude, no?
I appreciate why that stuff concerns you. I guess my hope is that the film would challenge his apolitical stance rather than uncritically celebrating it. Given that it is from the director of Precious (which I haven’t seen but hope to), it seems worth a look.
RE: Just out of curiosity, what is is specifically that you think I misunderstand about the civil rights struggle…
You wrote: the story of a black man elevating himself through servitude seems to me plain wrong.
It almost sounds as though you are confusing the dignity and respect that should be due a person no matter what work he or she does with your perception of the supposed indignity of jobs involving domestic service. But perhaps I am not entirely understanding you here.
In any event, the trailer to this film has engendered a fair amount of discussion. Perhaps the actual film will spark discussion and debate as well.
I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of what I wrote. What I mean by the sentence you quoted is made clear by what followed: “The only time he is ever shown to become agitated enough to object to anything is when his son (which is portrayed in an unsympathetic manner as an ingrate at that moment) is shown to be a black panther. Other than that, he’s just a consumate professional: say nothing, don’t take chances, and please, whatever you do, don’t rock the boat. If I’m correct about this, that seems to me like a very dangerous message to send people.”
Since we haven’t seen the film yet (or at least I haven’t), I will withhold judgment about these scenes.
But I will mention a line from the trailer that gave me pause. It’s when one character says to another, “It’s his world; we’re just living in it.” This sounds more like screenwriter exposition than something that real people would actually say.
And if I have any reservations about the film, it is that it might come across as historical allegory, a “greatest hits of the era as seen through the eyes of a butler” rather than a fully fleshed out drama about particular people. And here I am more interested in stories about people’s lives, the decisions they made, and how they reacted to their circumstances, and something that reflects the truth of real people, not just some mishmash “inspired by true events.”
But I am not particularly concerned about messages that might be sent to people, or how dangerous some might think these messages might be. A compelling and truthful story would be able to convey the idea that an apparent stance of “don’t rock the boat” often concealed a much more complex way of understanding and dealing with the world.
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