Let's Stop Calling Lee Daniels' The Butler the New Forrest Gump

They're similarly structured, but The Butler portrays the Civil Rights movement as a necessary struggle for justice, not just a troubling product of the chaotic 1960s.
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The Weinstein Company

In the last week or so, Lee Daniels' The Butler -- based on the true story of an African-American White House butler who waits on eight different presidents during his 34-year tenure -- has received a flurry of mixed-to-positive reviews. In them, there's a particular comparison that keeps cropping up between The Butler and another mega-famous film. Daniels's movie, No. 1 in the box office this past weekend, has been called "a White House Forrest Gump," "Lee Daniels' Forrest Gump," and "a more serious-minded Forrest Gump" (among others), and even the director himself has said he envisions the Forest Whitaker vehicle as "his black Forrest Gump."

Given its vast, multi-decade narrative and its one-man-sees-American-history-happen-up-close structure, it's understandable that so many critics would be quick to see the similarities. But to label The Butler a version of Forrest Gump isn't quite fair, and ignores one of the most important virtues of Lee Daniels's film. Lee Daniels' The Butler paints an imperfect but far more multi-dimensional portrait of the black Civil Rights movement, presenting it as a necessary struggle for justice that both united and drove apart families, friends, and lovers, even when they were on the same side. Forrest Gump cast the Civil Rights movement as a prop, at best, and a threat, at worst.

In 2000, Jennifer Hyland Wang, then a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin, wrote for Cinema Journal about how Forrest Gump earned its reputation as a "conservative" film: In the past, writers like Modern Fiction Studies' Thomas Byers had called it "aggressively conservative," and it had appeared in National Review's 1995 list of the 100 best conservative movies. In the process, she compiled an inventory of the ways in which Forrest Gump's plot reflects negative attitudes toward social change and seems to re-imagine the turbulence of the 1960s as mostly progressives' fault.

Blaming the Radicals
In Forrest Gump, proponents of social change are often punished or portrayed in a negative light. Forrest's childhood sweetheart Jenny, for instance, protests the war, joins in with the sexual revolution, and becomes linked to the Black Panther Party in her young adulthood. She then gets beat up onscreen by her boyfriend, a fellow radical, at the Black Panther headquarters in Washington; the Panthers simply stand by and watch until Forrest interrupts them and saves Jenny. Jenny later dies of a mysterious virus often assumed to be AIDS. As Wang puts it,

By evoking the threat of bodily harm to those women who did participate in political movements, the film limits the attractiveness of political change and vilifies the activism of the period. Progressive political movements, Forrest Gump asserts, did not help women make their mark but left their marks on America's women. ... The racial and sexual threat a 'political' African-American man embodies is grounded in the Black Panther's stance against the traditional American values that Forrest Gump eventually champions. By visualizing the danger of black autonomy to a white woman and by giving voice to the threats of Black Nationalism, Forrest Gump emphasizes the need to keep these bodies under white America's control.

In other words: Forrest Gump makes the Black Panthers look pretty bad.

The Butler, on the other hand, offers a more nuanced portrayal of the Black Panthers and their evolution. The Panther headquarters in The Butler is depicted as having rules written on the walls that encourage justice and respect ("always pay full price for goods"). White House butler Cecil Gaines's son Louis and his girlfriend Carol join the Panthers, and explain to Cecil and his wife over dinner that, yes, the movement does have radical political motives, but it also seeks to improve the community by providing childcare for low-income black families and free lunches to black children. (Cecil responds by promptly throwing them both out of the house.)

Later, however, the Panthers are asked to pledge that they'll kill in the name of their cause. Carol says she will; Louis, morally conflicted, says he won't. They break up.

The Virtue of Progress
In Forrest Gump, Forrest's loyalty, obedience, and innocence make him the undisputed hero and moral compass of the film. According to Wang, "Gump argues that eventually these conservative values," -- the ones often coded as "white," she points out -- "not the alternative 'liberal' ones explored in the 1960s, will survive the test of time." Thus, "Forrest Gump reestablishes the role of the white patriarch as the source of political and cultural renewal."

Lee Daniels's new film takes the opposite stance by crediting change-minded thinkers with America's political and cultural renewal. The last time any president is shown to be at odds over whether to pursue progress for black people in America is during the Eisenhower administration; in 1961, an emotional John F. Kennedy admits to Cecil that "these kids," the Freedom Riders, have changed his brother Bobby's heart and "they've changed mine, too." From then on, the presidents are mostly shown to be in favor of creating racial equality and improving the lot of African-Americans in the United States. And at the end of the film, Nancy Reagan praises Cecil for his dogged and ultimately successful campaign to ensure that the White House's "black help" earn salaries equal to their white colleagues'.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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