September 22, 2013 ·
Saw THE BUTLER in English with French subtitles. A big hit in the US and here in France too. At first I thought it a great, great film. Beautifully written. Magnificently acted by Forest Whitaker and Oprah. A nice look inside the White House but also a dramatic, well deserved and crushing indictment of American racism and of the hatred, violence, cruelty and stupidity of our southern states. Watching it, you are likely to say to yourself: Don't talk to me about American exceptionalism, we have caused and condoned as much ugliness and brutality as anyone else. As for the film's greatness, by the next day, after googling the character Whitaker plays, I was having second thoughts. The movie claims to be based on truth, and to some extent it is. Whitaker plays a real person who was a White House butler through eight presidents, and who becomes such a well respected, even revered personage, that Nancy Reagan invites him and his wife to a state dinner. All true. Some small details are fictional. He was born in Virginia, not Georgia, for instance. They don't bother me. But the subplot is not small and does bother me. It involves his son who is portrayed as a rabid freedom rider who, disowned by the proper and subservient butler, joins demonstrations throughout the segregated south, and is constantly getting arrested, beaten up, fighting off police dogs, etc. Later he is elected to congress. These are the movie's most visceral, dramatic scenes, all of them true to real life and none of them true to the butler's son.
So what of the movie's claim to "based on a true story?" An artist's first job, it has always seemed to me, is to present truth. The fake and the spurious have no place in art--any kind of art. So what is truth? The question touches me on a personal level, for in the next few days I plan to publish directly to Kindle and The Nook my latest novel The Red Squad, which has a lot of truth in it. My story is set in New York in 1951, at which time and later the NYPD did have a red squad, and it committed many abuses, made life hell for a number of people. And it was an actual case that got me thinking about writing the novel in the first place. So how much truth can I claim for my story? Based on? Suggested by? Attaching the word truth to a movie or book boosts sales, of course it does. So what do I do?
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A Butler Well Served by This Election
For more than three decades Eugene Allen worked in the White House, a black man unknown to the headlines....
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