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.
This 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.
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.
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: