Despite opening inaccuracy, all Americans should see ‘Butler’

Despite opening inaccuracy, all Americans should see ‘Butler’

The first scene in Lee Daniels’ film “The Butler” sparks a bit of controversy. The setting is Macon, Ga., in 1926. It’s harvest season on a big cotton plantation. The field is spacious; cotton can be seen in every direction as far as the eyes can see. In this scene, the butler is a child picking cotton with his parents. The plantation owner’s son approaches, takes his mother to a nearby shed and rapes her. She screams twice as the child, his father and other field hands listen. The plantation owner’s son emerges from the shed pulling his pants up. When the father starts to say something, he is blatantly shot in the head with a revolver.

If this scene was intended to teach a lesson about the horrors of slavery, it’s a job well done. However, the setting is 1926. Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Is the movie producer saying that nearly 60 years after emancipation, that big cotton plantation owners were of the mentality that they owned the people that worked in their cotton fields and had the liberty to snatch a man’s wife if he so desired?

In his book “Up from Slavery,” Booker T. Washington writes, “After the coming of freedom, most of the colored people left the old plantation for a short while at least, so as to be sure, it seemed, that they could leave and try their freedom on to see how it felt. After they had remained away for a time, many of the older slaves, especially, returned to their old homes and made some kind of contract with their former owners by which they remained on the estate” According to Mr. Washington, this was the general pattern throughout the South.

What point am I trying to make? The opening scene in the film “The Butler” is a historical inaccuracy. In 1926, blacks working the cotton field should not have been portrayed as slaves. They were under contract or verbal agreement. They had to have been picking cotton for meager wages or a share of the crop.

Yes, we know that Reconstruction failed and an atrocious racism persisted far into the 20th century. But, by 1926, it was not common practice for a field manager to in the midst of family and peers, snatch a black man’s wife out of the cotton field for personal pleasure while everybody in the field sees what’s going on. That scene was unrealistic.

OK. It’s just a movie.

As controversial as the first scene might be, Lee Daniels’ film is nevertheless entertaining. It’s a good review and reminder of how far this great nation has come in dealing with its social problems. Jane Fonda, Oprah Winfrey and Forrest Whitaker played their roles perfectly as Terrance Howard kept the audience laughing with his clown antics. It’s not a black film. It’s an American film. If you haven’t seen it yet, take a break from this government shutdown politics and visit a theatre. Pay close attention to the first scene.

Alfred Spencer, Warren