I went to see The Butler a few weeks ago, a decision made out of my expectation of a good historical film about the presence of a black butler serving in the White House. I hadn’t seen a trailer, read a review, and in fact I didn’t even know exactly who was in it. But I usually get an instinct about a film I know I will enjoy. I did enjoy the film even if “joy” is not the best word to describe my cinematic experience. There were moments where I did laugh, but I also cringed, winced and felt extremely saddened in a dramatised version of real events that occurred in the history of America, involving the fight for African American civil rights. It brought home to me, just what many African Americans have been through; the shocking maltreatment, the police brutality, and the sheer injustice of living in an unequal society. A society that that still lives in the memory of those alive at the time to witness it. By the end of the film I was in tears, and by the sound of sniffles elsewhere in the theatre, I doubt I was the only one. I thought all the characters were played well, and even Oprah, who I was expecting to be a flop, did a fantastic job of playing the wife of Cecil Gaines.
I went home feeling very moved and inspired, and even feeling a sense that more needs to be done in America for a more equal society, given the stories we still so often hear about racial tensions, and discrimination. I wanted to learn more about the true story upon which the film was inspired by, and went online to see what I could find. I came across a review of the Butler on the Guardian online. The reviewer was eager to point out every departure from the true story that the film had made. For instance, there was no record that Eugene Allen (Cecil Gaines real life name) had been a slave, and witnessed his father killed, and his mother go crazy after being raped by her slave master. Allen only had one son, as opposed to two, as the film depicts, and his son was not involved with the Freedom Writers or Black Panthers. The reviewer also used the word “farcical” to describe the film, and pretty much rubbished it.
After reading the review, I toyed with the idea of writing a blog post about it. As the reviewer was a white British person, I wanted to point out, that maybe they did not enjoy the film because he just could not relate to it, as it is a race-themed film. Maybe he just wasn’t all that concerned or moved by how black people have been treated in America. Maybe he thinks that we should just stop talking about all that racism and slavery stuff already. Maybe there was no single character he could relate to because he has not experienced anything similar to the struggles that the black characters faced, or just because, the colour of their skin automatically made him feel detached from the film, and made him to immediately view it as a “black film”.
Well I got rather busy with other things and then forgot about writing the post. Then I read this piece:
by a blogger who took issue with the New York times lazily labelling The Best Man Holiday as a race themed film, and thought that maybe I would write my piece after all, as race and film seem to be a topic of discussion at the moment. I wanted to try and find the review I had read in order to get the name of the reviewer, and carefully pick apart the review, but I could no longer find it. Instead I found another two negative reviews in the Guardian, one by Mark Kemode (a white male), and the other by Peter Bradshaw (who also happens to be a white male). These men both dissect the film in a very cold and deconstructive manner, without paying much attention to the substance. Bradshaw relegated the film with a comparison to Downtown Abbey. Kermode is slightly more generous by giving the film 3 stars instead of 2 as Bradshaw did, but still manages to denounce the film as a “fanciful retelling of contemporary history”. Both men totally miss the point.
The fact that these British film critics have a difference of opinion about the Butler to me (and all my friends who have watched the film), could be dismissed as just that; a difference of opinion. But I remember reading an interesting article about research that had been carried into film critic’s responses to films that have a black leading character being reviewed more harshly than films with a white leading character. If this is correct there is a potential knock on effect of less people going to see the film because of reading the negative review, and the film receiving fewer takings. Even in a small way then, the difference of opinion can be significant.
I’m not saying that the British are wrong about the differences between the film and real life. Clearly they are right. But the film is only “inspired” by a true story, and not based on it. And it is actually quite clever, the way the film weaves into the plot what was going on at the time with the Freedom Riders, and Black Panthers. Even though various things that happened in the film did not happen in Allen’s own life, they did actually happen. Slaves were raped and killed. Freedom Riders were repeatedly thrown in jail, and the segregated society was an appalling affront to the rights of black citizens. Allen did live through segregation to seeing the first “black” president of the United States. That’s the substance of the film that I refer to.
Maybe critiquing a film is supposed to be a very academic exercise devoid of any heart. If that is the case then fair enough, but perhaps these British Film critics should consider that for many movie theatre goers, The Butler is a touching and sensitive encounter with the past.