Fiction isn’t history. History isn’t fiction — at least it shouldn’t be.
I recently attended a showing at the Reg Lenna Civic Center, of the 2013 film “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” I thought the film was extremely worthwhile, and hoped that many people my children’s ages would see it, because it made plain elements of history which I have experienced within my own lifetime. But, it seemed as though there needed to be voices which expressed the differences between what was on the screen and what actually happened. Once I had that thought, it wasn’t a long stretch to realize that this column needs to be one of those voices. This week, let’s look at “The Butler,” and then, since we’re discussing films, let’s go on to another recent silver screen success story.
This film was written by Danny Strong and both produced and directed by the title’s Lee Daniels. It is based upon the actual life of Eugene Allen, a man who was born in the American South, only a few years after the Civil War ended slavery, and who eventually was hired as a butler at the White House, where he served each newly-elected president, beginning with Eisenhower and continuing through Reagan. I’ve read in article after article about the film that he served eight presidents, although I count seven: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan. The point is the contrast between the man’s real life, which often involved discrimination, violence, and misery, and his life spent serving, but not quite living, at the top of the social chain, greeting, serving, and living among the most powerful people in the world
Probably very few people would wish to spend two hours and twelve minutes, looking in on Eugene Allen’s real life. A glob of toothpaste falls on the shirt he’s planning to wear to work, so he has to change into a different one. He gets a papercut, while preparing White House menus. His wife prepares something for dinner that he doesn’t enjoy, and it puts him out of sorts.
The reviews of the film have been overwhelmingly positive. According to the “Rotten Tomatoes” web site, professional critics reviewed the film positively in 74 percent of incidents, and audience members who were polled gave it positive responses in 82 percent of situations. Where there have been negative reviews, it has usually been over the fact that the film quickly spills from event to event in history, as though every moment of the man’s life was a major place in history.
Every so often someone has sent in a comment such as “O.K. I get it. White people are bad. Can we move on?” In a similar vein, it would be necessary to say, “I get it. Nazis are bad. Can we move on?” or “I get it Romans did bad things to Jews, during the empire. Can we move on?” Often, it’s important to realize that if the doctor is looking for a lump, and there is a lump present, it’s important to examine and treat it, and a major mistake to ignore it and move on.
This is one of those moments when artists are forced to rely upon their audience’s maturity and presence of mind. In our modern world, where it seems as though nearly every film and television show deals with supernatural beings, myths, or magic, it’s nearly miraculous that the filmmakers actually got that maturity in so many cases.
The film “The Butler” calls its principal character Cecil Gaines, rather than Eugene Allen. The film shows Gaines as a child, working in the cotton fields of the deep South, while Allen was born on a Virginia plantation. Do you call that the Shallow South? In the film, the young owner of the plantation decides to rape Gaines’ mother. When his father dares to object, he is shot dead on the spot.
Yes, that is a major piece of drama which wasn’t in the man’s individual history. It happened on more than one occasion, and the real man grew up knowing that it could happen, and that certainly influenced his life choices, but if we were being historical, it wouldn’t be in the film.
The film gives Gaines and his wife Gloria two sons. One becomes a Civil Rights activist who manages to be present at every major event in the whole movement, while the other is sweet tempered and agreeable, and ends up being killed during the Vietnam War, which Gaines has witnessed being planned and operated while he served meals to the planners. In fact, Allen and his wife Helene had only one son, who did participate in some minor marches and protests, and who served in Vietnam, but was not killed. The real son eventually had a career at the Department of State.
The son’s participation is the way the filmmakers show us what was happening in the country. Would it be necessary for an audience to be told outright that probably no one individual was physically present at each major event?
Actor Forest Whitaker portrays the Butler as a man who lives by faith. He absorbs insults and slights, but never ceases to push toward better treatment. Oprah Winfrey, who first came to the public’s attention in an Oscar-winning role as the raped and beaten wife in the film “The Color Purple,” shows once again, in this film, that she is an actor who can portray believably anything from regal majesty to a woman who has given up on life and betrayed herself and the people who believed in her.
In this film, Winfrey portrays the Butler’s wife, in many ways just one more wife who has been shoved onto the back burner, while her husband gives his full attention to his job. Her reaction, when her son talks of his father as “only a Butler,” is one of the high moments of the film.
One more brilliant characterization from the career of Vanessa Redgrave, comes in her portrayal of the mother of the man who rapes Cecil’s mother and murders his father. We see a woman who simultaneously realizes that enormous wrong has been done by her son to this child and his family, while she also realizes that the most she can do to right the wrong is to see that the child learns a trade which will enable him to have a better life than he will have if he stays where he is.
Redgrave’s aside comment to the boy, “A room ought to seem empty, when you’re in it,” is an important, meaty revelation of values and realities.
I strongly recommend this film to you. The film is available for rental or purchase on disc, according to web sites at the time of this writing. It was only released in August of this year, so it is still playing in some theaters, as well, though none in our area, at the time of this writing.
In all my years of teaching history, one of the hardest things to accomplish was to teach young people that the events of history are real things which happened to real people. To that end, there is a real place for fiction, both written and filmed, which can make real stories which in factual recounting don’t seem real. It is important, though, that people take the time to sort out reality from drama.
MAN OF STEEL
Since I wrote above, in discussing “The Butler,” that in today’s films and television it often seems that the subject of nearly all programming is magic, and things which are larger than life. Now, we’ll demonstrate that by discussing the latest film in the “Superman” franchise, which is called “Man of Steel.”
Superman, of course, is a comic book character, who has been said to represent Americans’ image of their ideal selves. He’s strong, healthy, moral, good-intentioned, kind, and has public spirit. He doesn’t use his strength do to wrong. The old television series used to say his life was dedicated to “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”
Superman isn’t bound by the laws of physics, nor of biology. He can fly, both around the earth and out into space, by simply wanting to do so. He can bend metal beams in his bare hands, while bullets, fired at point blank range, bounce off him, causing no harm, whatsoever.
Writers who have tried to produce past films, television series and books about Superman have confessed that one of the biggest problems in writing about him is that there is nothing he can’t do, so it’s very difficult to create a story with any kind of conflict. He could simply resolve the conflict by using his unique talents.
Now that we have been given good reason to questions elements of the American way of life, writers have begun to find ways to insert some conflict into his life. In the most recently released film, for example, they haven’t even cast an American actor, to portray the embodiment of the American Way. British actor Henry Cavill is earthier and bulkier in that skin tight suit we seem to feel he should wear, than the other actors who have played the role, ranging from. George Reeves to Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, Tom Welling, and Brandon Routh, off the top of my head.
One event which is impossible to ignore, in looking at films, is the enormous progress which has been made in computer generated images. Those who see films by way of DVDs, often find that the extra offerings which are often attached to those discs demonstrate the real scenes which the cameras have recorded, and then they show the fleets of ships or the hordes of armies or the unbearable blasts of explosions which have been added to the scene by computers, and which look so real, we often doubt our eyes, when they show us the difference.
“Man of Steel” begins on the planet of Krypton, which the comics tell us was Superman’s native planet. We’re told that on Krypton, a way of life has evolved in which every child is produced in a laboratory. Each child, as in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” is created with exactly the genetic make up to suit his intended role in life. The child will be a laborer, a government leader, an artist, a warrior, or whatever.
The planet’s leading scientist, portrayed by Australian actor Russell Crowe decides that such a way of life is cruelly unfair, and that children may want a way of life for which they are not genetically programmed. I confess to the thought that it reminded me of Lucy, wanting to get into her husband’s nightclub act, even though she lacked talent. The scientist and his wife decide to actually give birth to a child, by natural means, and to allow him to choose his own destiny.
Sadly for them, they have chosen exactly the moment at which their planet has begun to self-destruct, as the population’s mining of minerals from the planet’s core has so destroyed the natural forces which have created the planet, that it cannot survive. Crowe and his wife decide to send their newborn son off into the stars, in the hope that he can survive and thrive in another location.
At the last moment, Krypton’s military leader, General Zod, decides that the ruling council of the planet is destroying everything, and he and his troops should destroy the council and fix things. When Zod learns that this child has been launched into space with the genetic key to every living thing on Krypton, he sets out on a universal search, intending to clone his fellow citizens back to life, and to conquer any weaker race among whom the traveling child might be now living.
Naturally, wandering child Kal El has found his way to Earth, where he has been found and raised by good, decent farm couple Jonathan and Martha Kent. The Kents are played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, and both give a decency to their portrayal which greatly strengthens the film.
The Kents name their new son Clark, and they raise him to keep his special abilities a secret, “because the world isn’t ready yet to face the possibility of a visitor from another planet.” Thus, the famous dark-rimmed eyeglasses which hides from even the people who know him best that Clark Kent is actually Superman.
The film has many weaknesses. Characters fail at doing things they are later shown to be perfectly capable of doing, for example. General Zod accommodates to the elements in Earth’s atmosphere which makes natives of Krypton have super powers in about five minutes, while it takes Kal El more than 20 years. As the villain closes in on Superman, and his superpowers seem as though they will not be enough to stop Zod, Superman gives the key to all the scientific magic from Krypton to Lois Lane to hold, she who has no superpowers.
Still, it’s entertaining. If, from time to time you can’t figure out what’s going on, you can just rest assured that it doesn’t matter, and things will work out, and they do.
Cavill does a good job in the title role. He keeps a straight face and looks earnest, and he is quite impressive, physically.
Amy Adams is annoying as Lois Lane. What does Superman see in that woman?
Michael Shannon is almost unrecognizable as Zod. He actually finds some humanity in the villain. This is a man trying to save his own race from extinction, and if that makes him willing to destroy other races, it’s a situation with which we can understand, if not accept, morally.
You need to be able to have a good time while your ears are being punished by outrageously loud noises, and you need to be able to press ahead with a plot which often doesn’t really make sense. Still, it’s an entertaining time.
Watch it to take your mind off the news, for a while, but make your mind up not to believe it, in advance.