Over the past several decades, important feature films have been made about most of the historical and cultural touchstones of post-Second World War America, from the Vietnam War and John F. Kennedy's assassination to Watergate and women's liberation. But there's been one glaring exception: The breadth and depth of the civil-rights movement -- the most influential social and political force of the 20th century, not just on American life but throughout the world -- has never been represented in the dominant narrative medium of our age.
A number of films about the civil-rights movement are in various stages of development. The first out of the gate will be Lee Daniels' The Butler, which stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, an African-American man born a sharecropper's son in Georgia, who comes to Washington in the 1950s and eventually serves eight U.S. presidents as a White House butler. (The film is based on a Washington Post article written by Wil Haygood in 2008.)
Directed by Daniels and featuring a cavalcade of stars in cameo roles, The Butler largely focuses on Gaines's family life and interactions with the presidential families he serves. But it also chronicles the burgeoning movement taking shape on the streets far beyond 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
While Gaines silently observes Dwight D. Eisenhower grappling with school desegregation, Lyndon B. Johnson preparing to sign the 1965 voting rights act and Richard M. Nixon plotting against the Black Panthers, his son Louis (David Oyelowo) is sitting in at a Nashville, Tenn. lunch counter, joining the Freedom Riders, crossing paths with Martin Luther King Jr. and eventually joining the Panthers himself.
Similar scenes have been portrayed as backdrops or perfunctory montages in previous films. But The Butler, which arrived in theatres Friday, is the first major feature film to capture the full sweep and scope of the civil-rights movement, including its global reverberations. (Gaines retires during the administration of Ronald Reagan, who is seen vetoing sanctions against South Africa's apartheid regime.) For that reason, if The Butler does well at the box office, projects about the same era that have been stalled over the past several years may find renewed momentum. Conversely, should the film flop, some of Hollywood's most pernicious myths -- most pointedly that there are not wide audiences for historical dramas in general and black films in particular -- will become all the more entrenched.
"Yikes," said Daniels, who visited Washington last week, when he considered The Butler as a cinematic and cultural bellwether. Upon reflection, however, it's a burden he was happy to accept. "If it opens the doors for other civil-rights films and African-American dramas, right on," he said. "That's a great thing. Anything to help the cause."
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At least four major film or television projects about the civil-rights movement are in the works: DreamWorks is developing an untitled Martin Luther King Jr. biopic. Memphis, about King's final days and the hunt for his assassin, is back on track with director Paul Greengrass and producer Scott Rudin after being dropped by Universal Pictures in 2011. Director Ava DuVernay is preparing to direct Selma, about the 1965 voting-rights campaign (a film Daniels himself once intended to direct). And America: In the King Years, based on Taylor Branch's trilogy of civil-rights books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters, is in development as a seven-part mini-series at HBO.
Each of these projects has been gestating over several years, and each of them has been stymied or derailed at some point, sometimes because of disputes over King's life rights, sometimes because financing fell apart, sometimes because a filmmaker got cold feet. But all of them have been subject to the tyranny of "comparables" in the entertainment business, whereby executives green-light or drop movies based on the performance of projects with similar themes and casting configurations.
"In any business, part of the job is to mitigate your risk," Edward Saxon told me in 2007. Saxon, an independent producer, worked with Jonathan Demme 20 years ago when Demme sought to adapt Parting the Waters as a feature film. "So you say, 'OK, if this superhero movie does even half of what that superhero movie did, it'll be successful.' But when you tried to call up comparables on a movie like Parting the Waters, they (didn't) exist."
That math might be changing. Consider: In 2009, Daniels' drama Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire became an unexpected art-house hit, and earned Daniels an Oscar nomination. Last year, Lincoln Steven Spielberg's historical drama about the 16th U.S. president, exceeded even Spielberg's commercial expectations. This year, the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 and the micro-budget contemporary drama Fruitvale Station have both done well at the box office, earning more than $95 million and $10 million, respectively.
And it's no coincidence The Butler is opening the same month as did The Help, the period drama about African-American domestic workers and their white employers that became a box-office smash in 2011 -- and that shares more than a little thematic DNA with The Butler.
Knowing the importance of comparables, The Butler screenwriter Danny Strong crossed his fingers when The Help came out, watching its commercial journey closely. "I was writing The Butler simultaneously and I was very worried: Could this hurt getting The Butler made?" Strong recalled last week. On the strength of the $180- million The Help earned at the box office, he added, "we were able to go to private financiers and say, 'Look at what a hit this was.' It was enormously helpful in giving people confidence that we could quote unquote be the next Help. And if we can make half as much as The Help did, we're a hit."
Whether it's a function of comparables, cultural progress, changes in the global film business or the Obama effect, the zeitgeist seems to be shifting. The result is that one of the most vibrant, meaningful, potent and richly dramatic eras in American history may finally find the cinematic foothold it has been denied for far too long. As Daniels told me when I asked how The Butler got made in spite of the obstacles: "You can't stop the universe from doing what is meant to happen."
-- The Washington Post