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Movie Review: The Butler

Knowing that I enjoy most things historic, a couple of months ago Vince took me to see the top box office hit movie, The Butler.  

downloadThis was the perfect year to release this film as we observe 50 years after the “I Have a Dream Speech,” and after the Children’s’ Marches in Birmingham.  As you might expect I got caught up in the story as it unveiled life behind the scenes of each President from Eisenhower through Reagan.  The larger historic setting played out through the children of the fictitious butler, Cecil Gaines.  The oldest son was first a disciple of Martin Luther King, Jr., then switched to being a Black Panther after King’s death.  The second child, also male, died in Viet Nam.  Gaines’ wife, Gloria, struggled with the problems of any non-working wife of a busy man, being left alone and figuring out how to take care of life’s situations by herself.  In the movie she fell prey to alcoholism and a brief affair.

Cecil Gaines had the pleasant personality of any person in service of a person in power, whether white, black or of any nationality. As an example of that same serving attitude, the telegraph operators in the movie Lincoln, although they were white, their response to President Lincoln was much the same as the butler in this movie was to the presidents.  They didn’t offer an opinion unless they were asked.  They did not interact in a familiar or intimate way with the President, but were respectful and courteous as fit their role.  Cecil Gaines acted the same way to his Presidents.

eugeneallen_portrait

Like the average, uninformed moviegoer, I wrongfully assumed that The Butler was basically true because I hadn’t read the story or any facts that inspired the movie.  So on a Sunday, when I was not really blogging, I read the story behind the movie, the life of  Eugene Allen, who did serve in the White House for 34 years.  The Smithsonian has a documentary of several interviews of White House workers  which you can order for $14.95.  Here are several excerpts.

Whitehouse workers

The reviews of The Butler were different from other movie reviews I have read.  Some reviewers critiqued the display of politics in the movie.  Two reviews point out the diversion from the facts of Allen’s life as though it is a serious deficit.  In historical fiction the main character is almost always a composite person who could have existed along side of famous characters of the time. A movie goer should not expect the protagonist to be real.  Reviewers acted like it was their job to point out how unreal Cecil Gaines was, so that we, the unthinking audience, would not be confused.  Other reviews of movies based on best-selling books discuss how well the movie does or does not follow the book, and how well the actors portrayed their parts, so vivid in the book. See my review of The Great Gatsby.  In this case the book, The Butler A Witness to History was written after the movie by Will Haygood, who also wrote the original article that inspired film writer, Danny Strong.

The Butler and the Common Core Standards for Language Arts

As a teachers integrate Common Core ELA standards into history-social studies classes, I would recommend The Butler.  Historical fiction motivates students to do just what I did.  They enjoy the process of finding out what really happened.  In essence, studying history and the other social sciences is a sleuthing game.  What was life really like in ….?  What a great perspective to learn from someone who was in the White House longer than any President?  Even though California Standards do not take history past 1998, this book still matches most of the post WWII standards.

For other excellent reviews and an interview of Danny Strong, the screenwriter:

14 replies »

  1. The Butler was one of the few movies I’ve seen in recent memory. I enjoyed it but, and perhaps this is the historian in me, I have trouble with movies that distort the past. For example, I didn’t understand why the director chose to imply that the main character left his job as a butler at the White House not too long after Ronald Reagan became president when, if I understand correctly, the individual the movie is based on actually continued as a White House butler well into Reagan’s second administration. I say that not because I am a fan (or a detractor) of Reagan, but because the individual the movie is based on has a compelling story without having to alter the facts.

    However, this is only a minor quibble with what was an overall excellent movie.

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    • I agree. My husband was pretty upset that they didn’t stick to the facts of the man’s life who inspired the movie. He felt that it detracted entirely. I’m a lover of historical fiction, so I was fine with it. It did become a movie with it’s own agenda by changing the man’s life, but that is what writers do. I loved the movie. 🙂

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  2. Historical fiction done well can be very illuminating. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara was the first thing I read on the Civil War, and that lead me to Shelby Foote’s Narrative of the Civil War and a host of other non-fiction historical accounts. but it started with that.
    This movie is on my list. I’ll proable catch it on video later on.

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    • You’ll love it, Guap. I’ll have to check up on The Killer Angels. I did a tour of several Civil War battlefields and museums in 2011, the first year of the 150 year anniversary. To prepare I read: A Team of Rivals, which was the foundation for the movie Lincoln. It was wonderful. I’ve read several since then, and my interest in that period of history came alive through the reading and visiting so many different places. 🙂

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  3. I love historical fiction too and it usually leads to other stories about the same era. I haven’t heard of this movie. Maybe it hasn’t been released in Australia yet. Now that I’ve seen the trailer I’ll definitely be watching out for it.

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  4. Great review, Marsha – have heard about the movie but I didn’t know what it was all about – so thanks a million for sharing your view. I love some historical movies but not all of them – but a true story as base it’s bound to be interesting. Forest Whitaker is one of my favorite actors .. and I can see it is already showing over here.

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  5. When I was a senior in high school, our teacher brought in a film version of MacBeth. It was a X-rated version (but that’s a story for another day). I found after being forced to read the book earlier, I could understand the basic story of the book better by watching the characters interact. So I think films have a place in teaching students.

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Marsha

Marsha

Hi, I'm Marsha Ingrao, a retired educator and wife of a retired realtor. My all-consuming hobby is blogging and it has changed my life. My friends live all over the world. In November 2020, we sold everything and retired to the mile-high desert of Prescott, AZ. We live less than five miles from the Granite Dells, four lakes, and hundreds of trails with our dog, Kalev, and two cats, Moji and Nutter Butter. Vince's sister came with us and lives close by. Every day is a new adventure.

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