Movie review: 'The Butler' did it

Controversial Lee Daniels film explores a hidden American life. Photo: 'The Butler' PR poster

WASHINGTON, September 17, 2013 – Lee Daniels’ film “The Butler” is based on a panorama of events that occurred during Eugene Allen’s tenure as White House butler from 1952 to 1986, where he served eight presidents before his retirement. Although current Hollywood buzz has it that Forest Whitaker as The Butler will be nominated as Best Actor for his starring role in this film, it is Oprah Winfrey whose role as his wife steals the show. 

Unlike many films that typically depict the life of African-Americans in the harshest, crudest and most non-sensitive terms, this movie is squarely aimed at the vital core of African-Americans not previously depicted by Hollywood or appreciated by the general U.S. populace, or even by African-Americans themselves.

Though many have raised questions as to whether some of the material in the movie was historically accurate, the narrative that is being dismissed is in fact the carefully constructed quilt of humanity and the historical collage that is captured in this film. In a search for a benign political nostalgia that never truly was from the protest demonstrations to the rise of the black power movement to President John F. Kennedy’s Assassination to “Soul Train,” the archives of history force us to face our past. 

Key historical moments also depicted in the film include the forceful 1957 intervention by President Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to ensure the safety of “the Little Rock Nine” as then-Governor Orville Faubus of Arkansas defied his orders to integrate. Regardless of his political motives at the time, President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy are accurately being shown as being the first Presidential couple to invite “The Butler” to a state dinner, which spoke volumes on the unexamined aspects of this Presidency.

These and other historical incidents in this film provide a unique opportunity for those willing to engage in an open and honest conversation to the fate of too many black Americans today who remain trapped in a mindset that still blames the brutality of slavery for most of their current ills while neglecting the unwillingness of too many to gain an education. This stance, however, would put them up against an establishment that would like to pretend that blacks are all equal and there are no barriers to their human progress.

While it indulges in blatant overkill on the Obama presidential election— which only serves to draw attention to its makers’ political biases—the film nevertheless does a good job illustrating why Mr. Obama has obtained so much unearned loyalty among black Americans. 

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While some viewers are upset by the filmmakers’ choice of Jane Fonda to portray Nancy Reagan, or by their casual assumption that President Reagan didn’t fight hard enough to end apartheid in South Africa, easily overlooked is the fact that it was a series of Republican Presidents whose actions proved liberating for blacks here at home. 

On the other hand, more than in any other film, authentic but long-concealed layers of black life came to life in “The Butler.” A prime example: the film examines in detail the dual nature of being black but also two-faced where one side shows blacks as non-threatening to assuage the fear of many whites while a coarser side is also explored, which increasingly today is no longer being suppressed. 

The dichotomies that exist in many black families are also examined. Such dichotomies, based on education, aspirations, money and station in life still divide African Americans to this day. Though domestics did, as Martin Luther King, Jr. noted, play an important role in the life of the American Negro of the previous era, such individuals were nonetheless arbitrarily assigned to the status of upper, lower and perhaps lower middle class existence in their communities, a tendency that unfortunately persists even today.

Obviously, this writer was not privy to the White House conversations that butlers often overheard. But it is well known that these men, even without security clearances, held and kept secrets the likes of which were seldom if ever leaked. Since “The Butler,” Mr. Eugene Allen (1919-2010), has passed on, we can be sure that most if not all those secrets were taken with him to the grave. 

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Aside from the present film, there are other stories concerning Allen and other workers who served many presidents that are highlighted in a 32-minute documentary entitled “Workers at the White House” and directed by Marjorie Hunt. That short film was released on a 2009 DVD. 

A 1979 NBC television miniseries, “Backstairs at the White House” based on the book “My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House” by Lillian Rogers Parks (with Frances Spatz Leighton), is another behind-the-scenes story about the inner workings of the White House and the relationship between the staff and the First Families. Also available “Workers: Traditions and Memories” by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

Dr. Ada M. Fisher is a physician, licensed teacher for secondary education in mathematics and science, previously elected school board member, and serves as the NC Republican National Committeewoman.  She is author of “Common Sense Conservative Prescriptions: Solutions for What Ails Us, Book I” (available through bookstores, Amazon, and on Kindle).   Contact her at P. O. Box 777; Salisbury, NC 28145;


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Ada M. Fisher, MD

Dr. Ada M. Fisher is a physician,  licensed teacher, the NCRepublican National Committeewoman, and author of Common Sense Conservative Prescriptions Solutions for What Ails Us, Book I.

Contact Ada M. Fisher, MD


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