"Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom” (2013) and “The Butler” (2013)
WAITING on FREEDOM
Both of these movies present a liberal interpretation of the civil rights struggles in two different, yet linked contexts – the U.S. South and South Africa. What is obvious about them is the hard line taken in these films against black radicalism.
“Mandela” was directed by Justin Chadwick and written by William Nicholson. Both are white. Nicholson grew up Roman Catholic, was educated at Christ’s College in Cambridge UK, then became a BBC documentarian. He then went on to write a play about CS Lewis and wrote parts of “Gladiator.” He also worked on “Les Miserables” – the movie. So a well-respected liberal who takes on ‘political’ themes with a Catholic slant. Chadwick is a long-time actor and director in the UK, mostly doing non-political dramas.
‘Mandela’ is based on the ‘great man’ theory of history. Mandela’s autobiography provided much of the source material. Mandela was clearly the right man in the right place, but without the mass movement behind him and the organizational prowess of the South African CP, he would have become just another civil rights lawyer. The film does not mention the CP, nor other leftist groups. The growing black consciousness movement led by Stephen Biko is vague and discarded. The CP left around mine trade unionist Moses Mayekiso (which has now formed a new left party, “The Workers & Socialist Party”) is ignored. Winnie Mandela, who was to Mandela’s left at the end, is portrayed at that point as a big crazy problem.
This is a 2013 film that features the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre as a key turning point, while the Marikana Miner’s Massacre of 2012 does not exist. As such, the film hints that history stopped with Mandela winning the presidency. The triumphalist tone take by the film – quite justified in a traditional Hollywood narrative arc – fails as an historic arc. Political meetings are ignored - instead the personal relationship between Mandela and Winnie or his first wife take priority. The military campaign of the ANC’s Umkhonto we Sizwe is barely shown, and Mandela’s role largely invisible. The significant ANC / SACP decision to drop demands for economic nationalization and instead propose only ‘one man, one vote’ is also invisible. Even the decision by the De Klerk regime to endorse ‘one man, one vote’ is not depicted. This was, of course, the key compromise that created the ‘new’ South Africa. Recent statistics show that the South African working class, poor township residents and black farmers are now worse off than during apartheid, while rich whites still mostly own everything.
Simple bourgeois democracy cannot alleviate these key economic issues. Another movement is brewing. ‘A Luta Continua,’ as Miriam Makeba once said.
WAITING on PRESIDENTS
“The Butler” is the U.S. version of this same standard Hollywood narrative. Lee Daniels directed and Danny Strong wrote it. Daniels is black, directing ‘Precious’ and producing “Monster’s Ball,” though started his career at 21 owning and running a large nursing agency. The film stars black film stalwarts like Cuba Gooding, Forest Whitaker, Mariah Carey & Oprah Winfrey. Strong, on the other hand, is a white actor appearing on many TV shows, including “Mad Men” and “How I Met Your Mother.” He is now involved in writing the “Hunger Games” trilogy. Again, a white liberal interested in political themes.
Ethnicity of course is not the only gauge of authenticity. The American black upper middle-class has little contact with the working or poor classes anymore. Most black ‘intellectuals,' actors and pop stars have simply stopped caring and instead, at best, celebrate the history of the aging civil rights movement – in order, it seems, to forestall another movement. It was a movement one of whose benefits was the creation of a larger black middle class. My gut feeling is that THIS part of the movement is what is really being celebrated.
This film is based on a real character – a black butler that worked for every president from Eisenhower to Reagan – Gene Allen. It is a way to introduce the history of the black rebellion in the 1960s and 1970s as a backdrop to long service with the ‘great men’ of American politics – the presidents. Martin Luther King is quoted in the film as saying that black domestic workers played a role in showing the white man that black people could be competent and excel. That is certainly one way to put it. However, as several scenes show, the black butlers in the White House didn’t get wage parity until the Reagan administration, when Nancy intervened after Allen complained once again. At that pace, we will get our rewards at death. ‘Merit’ has little to do with it.
However, much of this movie story is not based on Allen’s life. The key issue in the movie is the vast hostility between the ‘butler’ and his radicalized son, who organizes to integrate lunch counters down south, then becomes a Freedom Rider, is jailed repeatedly, shot-at and fire-hosed, and eventually joins the Black Panther Party (“BPP”). He leaves them, gets an MA degree, runs for office and becomes an activist with the “Free South Africa Movement.” Only then, sometime perhaps in the 1980s, does the movie ‘butler’ reconcile with his activist son at a FSAM rally. Both films come together at this point, referencing this issue.
This is frankly reactionary hokum. The intense hostility towards the son makes no sense. Even the mother only gently reprimands her husband, but she also breaks ties with the son. (And it’s Oprah, if you don’t get the point clearly enough.) In one scene, the son is thrown out of the house during dinner, after he shows up as a Panther with his girlfriend and says some mildly offensive statements. Yet at this point they had not seen their son in many years! The Panthers are shown as violence-loving and offensive, in some FBI cartoon-way. They are also shown as being slaughtered by the FBI and police, on orders from Nixon. Might I remind the writer that the BPP was called the “Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.” They believed not in ‘violence’ as some vague, stupid term used by liberals, but in defending themselves from racists and racism.
But hating on the BPP is the stand-in for hating black radicalism in the U.S. of any form. So is the portrayal of intense animosity between father and son here – a psychological inoculation of the audience against radicalism that makes no sense as a plot line in any other way. I expect Mr. Strong will also ruin the ‘Hunger Games’ series. His ‘revolution’ will be televised.
The film ends with its glorious culmination – the election of Barack Obama. And history stops again. If it had continued, it might have pointed out that Obama has done little for the majority of black people in his 6 years in office. He’s busy running the capitalist state, after all. A job that has certainly proved his competency, excellence and ‘merit.’
“The Hunger Games” is reviewed below. Use blog search box, upper left. See “Black Agenda Report” for analysis of Obama’s role in the U.S.
August 7, 2014