A Sense of Rhetoric, and Historical Misconceptions in Film

When it comes to establishing a sense of rhetoric with regard to my project topic, I am repurposing a previous argument I made regarding the lingering societal impacts that film can have on a given audience, particularly on the topic of race. I envision myself repurposing my arguments and opinions towards the impacts of the recent film The Butler, a flick I had understood to largely endorse negative racial thinking, while disregarding the political impacts of such ideology. To provide some context to my topic, the large majority of the plot of The Butler focuses on the real life story of the celebrated White House butler Eugene Allen, named Cecil Gaines in the film, who had served eight United States presidents over the course of three decades. In my continuing education at the University of Michigan, I came to this argument while researching the Civil Rights Movement during the course of my Communications 101 class sophomore year.
Generally, when developing the rhetorical situation around my topic, I found that the danger that The Butler delivers to a given audience can be found in how the main character Cecil, as a whole, is a man portrayed as being largely accepting of his social standing as a butler, against that of the White majority. The context of this topic, who I believe needs to hear this type of argument the most, would be the millennial audiences in our nation (born in the early 1980’s to the early 2000’s). Knowing how film can provide audiences with certain historical misconceptions on our nation’s history, I believe it is not only Hollywood that has had the capability to significantly alter viewpoints on race and civil rights, but also modern text.
When trying to find other rhetorical candidates I could link to my repurposing efforts, this past weekend I came across what I feel strongly to be a great resource in helping me understand my own rhetoric, in a historical context. As I found in my research so far, the text The Souls of Black Folk (1903) has stood the test of time as a fundamental window into African-American struggle for civil rights in the United States. The book takes the standpoint from the start that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line”, and the main focus of the novel was to characterize why African Americans should not need to be positioned to have to “beg for their civil rights” in the United States. The author W.E.B. Du Bois has the book split into various chapters that focus on his perspective and knowledge regarding what made 20th century America such a prime leader in reducing the human identities and dignities of African Americans, and what could potentially be done to solve these issues.
From what I have found within The Souls of Black Folk thus far, Du Bois goes on to provide a host of rhetoric relating to the shortcomings in the works of famous African American advisor and educator Booker T. Washington, and how Washington’s role as a national civil rights leader played out. Du Bois was significantly weary of Mr. Washington mainly in relation to how Washington stressed that African Americans should currently give up the following: 1. Political power, 2. Insistence on civil rights, 3. Higher education of Negro youth. Du Bois did not understand where these three proposals had merit, due to how increasing civil inferiorities would inevitably take place, only furthering the disenfranchisement of blacks in America. African American education and suffrage were what Du Bois dreamed most of, and Du Bois believed Washington was leading a movement that focused away from such things, in the present.
The Souls of Black Folk will prove to be an excellent resource in not only developing my own sense of rhetorical situation within the context of my arguments, but also in understanding the lasting impacts of our nation’s civil rights leaders. The problem of 20th century America was indeed the problem of the color line, a distinct deviation in political and social rights based on race. As a closing thought, when developing my own sense of rhetoric in this repurposing project, I would also like to stress, and never forget, that the world should never be a place where one would need to struggle greatly for the same rights that belong inherently to all of mankind.

Henry Khederian

Student, Resident Advisor, Mentor. University of Michigan, Class of 2017.

2 thoughts to “A Sense of Rhetoric, and Historical Misconceptions in Film”

  1. Henry,
    I think you’ve made great strides in your project thus far. Especially in regards to your research (focusing on W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk) I think you are in a really great position.

    Per our conversation yesterday, I think it’s really helpful to know that you have a passion for film because that passion will definitely carry over when you’re starting to create your repurposed piece.

    Additionally, if you combine the research you’ve already accumulated from “The Souls of Black Folk” and combine that with your knowledge of the film (and maybe additional films with similar historical contexts?), you’ll have a lot of content to choose from. I look forward to reading more about your progress!

    1. I guess the first thing I am curious about is, how do you know that audiences are perceiving the Butler as “a man portrayed as being largely accepting of his social standing as a butler”? Are there articles or reviews that confirm this?I haven’t seen the Butler so I really can’t make any sort of claim regarding this. But I’d be careful making claims about your audience, or even the original audience of the movie.

      I am also curious about how you plan to talk about misconceptions and what the specific dangers are. Mostly because most people in a face to face interview would be like “yeah, I believe in equal rights”. I think the dangers in misconceptions that media can portray are very very nuanced in terms of their manifestations. I’m not sure if you’l be researching media effects or not, but I can’t see your argument being made without that. I think from only a historical perspective you could, but today when knowledge is so accessible and people think we live in a post-racial society, it’s important to pick out these nuances.

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