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'.
Civil Rights as a Sideshow vs. Civil Rights as a Backdrop
Wang points out that Forrest Gump only engages with the real-life race-related events of the 1960s through two striking images: the 1963 desegregation of the University of Alabama and the activities of the Black Panther party. Other images of racism, specifically of white supremacy, are just fuzzy, muted background:
Although the figure of George Wallace is visually apparent in the archival footage, his vocal defiance of the court's integration order is almost completely deleted. Instead of focusing on Wallace's speech, the camera concentrates on Forrest's inability to comprehend what the controversy is all about. The racial hatred of white supremacy is thus muted by our hero's inability to understand racism and the politics of desegregation. In contrast, the audience is allowed to hear much of the unidentified Black Panther's threat of racial war. In the context of 1990s America, with the fiery images of the L.A. uprising still vivid in our social memory, the film's emphasis on the threat of black violence and the birth of these politics in the 1960s reiterates Gump's conservative racial politics. ...
Erasing both the tenacity of white racism and the courage of black resistance, the film deletes from the official history of the nation the Freedom Summers, the voting registration drives, the Birmingham bus boycotts, the March on Washington, the Watts riots, and the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
The Butler takes a similar (and, yes, at times heavy-handed) highlights-reel approach to the events of the 1960s. But it looks at the timeline of the Civil Rights movement from both a broader perspective -- with scenes devoted to the sit-ins near Fisk University, the Freedom Riders, violence at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, and the life and the assassination of MLK -- and a more deeply embedded one.
Fisk University students are shown hurling insults and physically harming one another to prepare for the treatment they will receive (and do receive) from whites when they stage lunch-counter sit-ins. Activist James Lawson coaches them through the process; some of them cry, others lash out. And issues that splintered the progressive black community -- such as participation in the Vietnam War -- are given some harrowing screen time, too: A personal conversation with Martin Luther King, Jr., about the special capability of the "house Negro" to quietly build up African-American credibility in the eyes of whites, finally convinces Louis that his father's role as a butler for a series of white presidents is activism in its own way. Later, upon hearing the news that his beloved younger brother Charlie plans to fight in the Vietnam War, Louis objects, begs him not to go, then grimly warns Charlie that he won't attend his funeral for ideological reasons.
Racism Isn't Over
Wang goes on to explain that Forrest Gump also portrays racism as simply a weird, inconvenient quirk of the 1960s:
The dynamics of Gump's racial representations are clearly delineated in a comparison between an archival clip of George Wallace's defense of segregation and a scene depicting Black Nationalism. A parallel is thus drawn between Wallace and an unidentified Black Panther -- both angry men preaching the inevitability of racial conflict. In juxtaposing these historical moments, Forrest Gump situates racial conflict in the sixties as a result of extremist political groups. Racism then can be safely articulated as neither a product of nor a concern of contemporary mainstream America. Like Forrest, white mainstream America is encouraged to "not see" race and racism except as a product of a specific historical moment.
As the film moves into the 1970s and 1980s, race virtually, as she puts it, "disappear[s] from the hero's -- and thus the film's -- view."
Again, The Butler does Forrest Gump one better: It makes a point to show that the struggle to end racism is a battle yet to be won. The final half-hour of The Butler shows Louis Gaines running for public office in the 1980s; he speaks in a televised interview about how to improve the lot of African-Americans. Later, Louis and Cecil protest South African apartheid together.
And just before Cecil leaves the White House for the last time, there's a subtly ominous moment: Ronald Reagan -- who's just stated that should Congress pass a bill to impose sanctions against South Africa, he'll veto it -- admits to Cecil privately that he's worried he'll end up on the wrong side of history.
So let's be careful with the comparison between Forrest Gump and The Butler. Both have their flaws, but the former is an admirable, compassionate film that includes depictions of the Civil Rights movement, while the latter is a film that includes admirable, compassionate depictions of the Civil Rights movement.