SENIOR MOMENTS: The Butler

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By PHIL SHIGEKUNI

Nancy Gohata is our movie person. Every month she comes up with the review of a film she thinks those on her email list would like to see. Her choice this month was not difficult.

Last Tuesday a dozen or so of us went to see “The Butler,” starring Forest Whittaker as the butler and Oprah Winfrey, who plays his wife. Also in starring roles are David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Jane Fonda. Robin Williams plays the role of President Eisenhower.

Whittaker starts out in life witnessing the murder of his father at the hands of a slave owner. Before he is able to become a butler to the president he is subjected to a series of experiences that indelibly reinforce his subservience as a “Negro.”

One good thing about being a senior is being able to remember some important events in our country’s history. The following are a few that came to mind as I watched the film, along with some observations about the film itself.

As Whittaker interacts with President Eisenhower, as played by Robin Williams, my mind went back to the late 1950s when Eisenhower was forced to send in troops to accompany black teenagers to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement, along with its interaction with the militant Black Panthers, are played to good effect in the film.

Seeing Whittaker’s conversations with President Kennedy, along with Jackie, recalled the painful memories of his assassination. 

President Johnson, though he signed the most radical civil rights legislation in our history, is heard making blatant racist comments.

I remember President Ford as the president who signed an executive order rescinding Executive Order 9066, and President Carter as the president who signed the legislation authorizing the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. And, of course, I came to recall President Reagan signing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

At one point in the film, Whittaker asks for a raise, which would make him equal in pay to white servants in the White House. He is denied the raise, and quietly accepts the refusal.

An emotional scene in the film takes place when Whittaker and his wife, Oprah Winfrey, berate their son for participating in a freedom march held in the South. The son is eventually cut off from the family because of his radical stand.

With the observance of the 25-year anniversary of redress fresh on my mind, the parallels pertaining to the generational differences between the butler and his son, and the differences between the older Nisei and Sansei come to mind.

Whittaker’s character had come to accept the racism that surrounded him.  For the sake of not “rocking the boat,” he was willing to accept unequal pay.  His son was inspired by the civil rights movement to seek justice for his people.

Redress, when it was first proposed at the JACL National Convention in 1978, was not readily accepted by many Nisei. They, like the butler, were comfortable, and did not want to disturb the status quo. 

When my friend and mentor Paul Tsuneishi became Pacific Southwest District governor for JACL in the late 1970s, he sent a letter to all the JACL district governors to assess their interest in redress. He received only one reply, and it was negative.

As Whittaker’s son wanted to take action against injustice, so the Sansei were at the forefront of pursuing redress. Karl Nobuyuki, the JACL national director, was born in camp. After the redress resolution was passed at the 1978 convention, he visited each of the 110 JACL chapters across the country to promote redress.

NCRR (National Coalition for Redress and Reparations), a group composed of largely Sansei and others born after the war, sponsored community redress meetings and helped prepare witnesses at the commission hearings in 1981. After the signing of the redress bill, NCRR continued to put pressure on Congress to ensure the redress money was made available.

I dare say, without the enthusiasm and dedication of these Sansei, and many more like them, there would have been no redress.

At the end of the film, perhaps energized and inspired by his son, Whittaker asks President Reagan for the raise that was denied to him earlier. President Reagan gladly gives him the raise, which makes his salary equal to that of all of the others on the president’s staff.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that President Reagan was also the signer of the redress bill.

Phil Shigekuni writes from San Fernando Valley and can be contacted at [email protected] The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

Robin Williams as President Dwight Eisenhower and Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in a scene from “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” (The Weinstein Company)

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