Monday, September 2, 2013

Dignity in Labor

Today is Labor Day in America and let's take just a moment in the midst of the summer cookouts and end-of-wearing-white to think about that.  Labor Day was not begun as a de facto end of summer celebration; rather, the holiday has its roots in bloody protest.  Workers, fed up, took to the streets to demand better working conditions and we should all be grateful.  The 40-hour work week, worker's compensation, and end to child labor - these are all direct results of the labor movement in this country.

Work should have dignity.

That notion is at the heart of the soul of Lee Daniels' The Butler.  (The long title is the result of an earlier movie called The Butler, but I'm going to truncate it from here on in this post.)  The Butler is one of those "inspired by actual events" movies and those can get tricky.  Let me make this point clear - this is not a biopic.  The character of Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker) is based on Eugene Allen, who served in the White House through eight administrations and saw history change and swoop and reverse itself.  Other characters are fictionalized to the point of being flat-out made-up.  (You can fact check The Butler here and here, and I'm sure there are plenty of other sources as well.)

Here's the thing - I don't care.  The overarching history of this film is solid, while the question of "did X really happen to Y?" doesn't interest me all that much, since the film is not pretending to be a biopic.  The civil rights movement proceeded in fits and starts.  Not all white people were horrible, but many were.  Not all black people agreed with Dr. King, but many did.  And the violence was widespread, ugly, and all too frequent.  Our history is a bloody one and we like the sanitize that by saying, "Oh, let's not dwell on that.  It's so unpleasant and now things are different."

Really?  Tell that to the black teenager who gets followed in a store.  Tell it to the woman who gets paid 20% less than her male counterpart for doing the same job.  Tell it to the gay couple who can't file a joint state tax return.  Tell it to the Sikh wearing a turban, or the Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, or, or, or.

We have yet to fulfill the promises of the Preamble.  We're doing better at "securing the blessings of Liberty," but no, we're not there yet.  The Butler shows us how far we've come.  It's a movie that we all need to see.  This isn't "black history."  It's our history.  Also, the star-studded cast is astonishing to watch - I won't even try to list all of the main performers, much less the smaller roles.  Just - go see this.  Take children.  Parts of this movie are harsh to watch.  I'm willing to bet they were harsher to live through.

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