The first scene in Lee Daniel's film "The Butler" sparks a bit of controversy. The setting is Macon, Ga., in 1926. It's harvest season on a big cotton plantation. The field is spacious as cotton can be seen in every direction as far as the eyes can see.
In this scene, the butler is a child. He is picking cotton with his parents. The plantation owner's son approaches, takes his mother to a nearby shed and rapes her.
She screams twice as the child, his father and other field hands listen. The plantation owner's son emerges from the shed pulling his pants up. When the father starts to say something, he is blatantly shot in the head with a revolver.
If this scene was intended to teach a lesson about the horrors of slavery, it's a job well done. However, the setting is 1926. Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865. Is the movie producer saying that 61 years after the emancipation, that big cotton plantation owners were of the mentality that they owned the people that worked in their cotton field and had the liberty to snatch a man's wife if he so desired?
In his book "Up from Slavery," Booker T. Washington writes, "After coming of freedom, most of the colored people left the old plantation for a short while at least, so as to be sure, it seemed, that they could leave and try their freedom on to see how it felt. After they had remained away for a time, many of the older slaves, especially, returned to their old homes and made some kind of contract with their former owners by which they remained on the estate." According to Mr. Washington, this was the general pattern of the South.
The opening scene in the film "The Butler" is a historical inaccuracy. In 1926, blacks working the cotton field should not have been portrayed as slaves. They were under contract or verbal agreement. They had to have been picking cotton for wages.
The former slave owners couldn't ignore the changes brought on by the Civil War. Though racism and lynches persisted, owners had no legal basis to work blacks in the field all day without pay. It was not common practice to - in the midst of family and peers -snatch a black man's wife out of the cotton field for personal pleasure. Not even the southern Jim Crow Laws sanctioned that kind of behavior in 1926.
As controversial and historically inaccurate as the first scene might be, Lee Daniel's film is nevertheless entertaining. It's a good review and reminder of how far this great nation has come in dealing with its social problems.
It's not a black film. It's an American film. If you haven't seen it yet, take a break from this government shutdown politics and visit a theater.