Friday, September 6, 2013
Fifty years and counting...
One of the most important parts of fiction writing is character development; how a character grows in reaction to the events that shape him or her. Sometimes, a character is a living reflection of a time or a changing society. Such is the case with Forest Whitaker's artful portrayal of Eugene Allen in the film "The Butler." An excellent and moving film which couldn't be better timed as our nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, its meaning and its legacy.
The real-life Eugene Allen was an African American who served as a butler in the White House for thirty years, serving eight successive U.S. presidents, truly a witness to history. He lived just long enough to see the election of America's first black president.
Whitaker's portrayal is beautiful to behold as his Eugene seems to age on screen before us, a young survivor evolving through America's racial turmoil, a grim wisdom chiseled into his aging features by one national tragedy after another. The man he's destined to become is there inside the younger Eugene, just waiting to be carved out of him.
The film takes liberties, and is generous with dramatic license. The dramatic and agonizing opening of the film shows Eugene as a young boy watching his mother raped and his father coldly butchered by a plantation owner. The event was purely fictional. But, as emotionally effective as the sight of Eugene as a homeless teenager sheltering in a drainage pipe in the pouring rain on a dark night, starkly symbolizing the alienation of the black man in a white supremacist society. Sometimes fiction can be a more potent instrument for telling the truth than any accurate biography in the life of any one person.
As Eugene grows up and looks for his niche in the white man's world, he learns that the black man in white America must wear two faces; one for his own and one for the man. In reaching the White House, he finds himself a witness at a crossroads of history. From the safety of the White House's ivory tower, he tries to let history play out around him, like an island in a rapidly rushing stream. But, he is reminded again and again that there is no escape from history. As it inevitably dawns on him that black staff in the White House are underpaid and never promoted, he finds he must speak out, only to be told by the lily-white representative of the system: "Don't be ridiculous. Don't buy into that Martin Luther King junk." There is also no escape from the widening split between Eugene and his son. The boy starts out following Dr. King's path of non-violent resistance. We see him learning to sit passively at an all-white lunch counter while he and his friends are subjected to cruel, sub-human taunting and physical abuse. As Eugene watches his son evolve from Freedom Rider to Black Panther to politician, he is helpless to bridge the gulf between his own long-held survival strategy and his son's desperation to show his true face to a world that doesn't want to see it. It's as if father and son embody the "two faces" of the African American. And, they cannot coexist.
The film is a merciless and much-needed kick in America's collective conscience. We see John F. Kennedy looking on with outrage and disgust at televised coverage of black protesters attacked with water canons and police dogs. "What country is this?" he asks. Eugene walks through the fires and the riots, trying not to let the course of history touch him. As he tries to comfort Jackie as she sits numbly, still covered in her martyred husband's blood. As he serves as moral sounding board to a pathetically crumbling Richard Nixon. Eugene's decisive moment comes during the Reagan administration. Nancy invites him as an honored guest to a White House function. He sits with the "ruling class" at their table, but it rings hollow in his heart. "I just wish it was for real," he later tells his wife. "Not just for show." The face he shows the world seems to hang heavier and heavier as the world changes around him. The final nail in the coffin of the old Eugene comes when Reagan turns a cold shoulder to the moral outcry against the brutalities of South African apartheid, vowing to veto any move Congress makes to oppose the racist regime.
Confronted by Eugene's resignation, Reagan confides to him, as though to his own conscience: "I sometimes feel I'm on the wrong side of this civil rights question. I'm afraid I'm just wrong."
Eugene answers with a confession of his own: "I've been afraid to admit what it really meant," he says. With the President's personal backing, Eugene finally wins his decades-long battle for equal pay and promotion for the black staff. Towards the end of the film, when we see an aged, but far stronger and wiser Eugene reconcile with his son and join him in an act of civil disobedience, it's as if a long and arduous journey has been completed. A Eugene aged in strength and dignity, returning to the White House an honored guest (this time very much for real) and walking the familiar path to the oval office to meet Barack Obama brings the odyssey to a close.
However much real or fictionalized, the development of the character embodies our national soul. It reminds us of how far we've come. And, how far we have yet to go.