Review by Gene
It didn’t take long for Lee Daniels’ The Butler (the actual full name of the film) to start generating some Oscar buzz. The scope of the film and the nature of the subjects covered throughout can instantaneously catapult it into such discussion. Combine that with the impressive cast of solid actors and actresses, you have the makings of an impactful and timeless production, if done right. The movie spans three generations in time, starting in the cotton fields in 1926 and concluding in the suburbs in 2008. It focuses of course on multiple racial issues such as slavery/servant-hood, segregation and civil rights at a time when our main character, Cecil Gaines, is a Butler in the White House. I don’t normally fork out the money for a theater viewing of a film I think would have the same impact from my couch, and this movie didn’t do much to change my mind on that. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a solid film and I won’t be surprised if it gets an Oscar nomination, though it probably doesn’t quite belong in the upper echelon.
Played by Forest Whitaker for the majority of the film, Cecil Gaines grew up in the cotton fields where he witnessed first hand his father shot in cold blood by their white landowner. Cecil is around 8 years old at the time and as you can imagine, that had a big effect on the rest of his life. Because of that he would run away about ten years later where, through a criminal act, he would find himself learning the finer traits of being a “house servant”. Here is the first instance of something I think we can glean about God. Personal tragedy such as what Cecil experienced as a child is often used as a reason to conclude that God does not exist. This is commonly known as the problem of evil and suffering. If an all-loving and all-powerful God existed then he would stop these things from happening, or so the logic goes. Ignoring for the moment the necessary suspension of free will in order for God to satisfy this complaint, I’d like to make a point about the power of God outside of Him simply stopping all bad things from happening. In The Butler, Cecil is brought in from the fields to be a “house servant” precisely because his father was now dead and unable to watch over him in the fields. Coming into the home allowed him the ability to learn a skill set that many servants did not have. A skill set that was harder to learn and in many ways more valuable to whites than working the fields. Because of these skills he learned, he was eventually afforded the opportunity to work in the White House, which then led to his subtle but sure influence on policy decisions. If his father had never been killed, and he had been raised into adulthood, that would have been a wonderful blessing for Cecil and would have surely made his life easier. However, it is as a result of his fathers murder than he was ultimately in such an important position at such a vital time. This is no small accomplishment and no lucky circumstance. I don’t mean to make light of the terrible experience of watching his father shot in cold blood, but we should not assume that because bad things happen that God does not exist, or that he is powerless. The next time you’re going through a similar trial, or suffering through some hardship, don’t think it is because God doesn’t care about you or that He isn’t there. He may have greater things in store for you.
Rather than going through the movie in a chronological fashion, I’d like to take a look at some key story-points through the three perspectives on racial issues shown in the film. Cecil can be seen as the passive aggressive observer, minus the aggressive part. Much of this is due to the nature of his job as a butler for the most powerful man in the world. His mentor at the beginning of the film taught Cecil to have two faces: his own, and the one he shows the white man. His position on racial issues was to have no position, at least when it came to expressing his opinion to his boss. Speaking out in any way would’ve meant the loss of his job. He surely cannot be faulted for his silence on this matter since his very livelihood was at stake, but this made me think of how a Christian should act in a similar situation. Suppose you were working for a man who opposed God and regularly worked to undermine the lives and efforts of believers. How would you respond if asked what your position was? Would you affirm your faith and trust in The Almighty, or shrink back from any perceived connection to His Son? Jesus said that if we deny him before man, he will deny us before the Father (Matthew 10:32). Our obligation as Christians in such a circumstance is clear.
The other two perspectives in race issues presented in the film are both shown by Cecil’s son, Louis, played by David Oyelowo. Of all the characters in the film, the biggest arc is probably experienced by him. We first see him as a teenager with some typical teenager disagreements with his dad, even resentment towards his dad’s pride about his new job as a butler in the White House. Then headed off to college, hoping to play a part in the desegregation movement. Then as a freedom rider and disciple of MLK Jr. where he has a valuable face to face interaction with the great leader. Then, in his most drastic change, a member of the black panther party. Finally in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s he comes to run for congress and speak out for the rights of blacks in South Africa. As you can see, Louis make some very big changes throughout the film. These changes can best be summed up by two perspectives: peaceful opposition and militant opposition.
While his dad is a silent observer, Louis wants to make a change in the world. He recognizes the injustices taking place and on multiple occasions he notices his dad standing on the sidelines, neither opposing or endorsing it. While at college, Louis takes the opportunity to become involved in “sit-ins”, one of the more popular and influential actions taken by peaceful civil rights activists. The film made it clear that such protests were molded after Gandhi’s approach to pursuing freedom for his people. That is all well and good, but later when Martin Luther King Jr. is brought into the picture, there is nothing mentioned of his overtly Christian approach in his speaking and his peaceful protests. King was an outspoken evangelical Christian, regularly using scripture to argue not only for the equality of all men, but the means by which to reach that end. In fact, the opening of the film features a famous quote from King, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.” Sounds awfully familiar to John 3:19,20, “the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light… everyone who does evil hates the Light and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” Louis’ behavior, actions and goals were exemplary when he was following this ideology, and it was making an important impact on important people. In one of the most moving parts of the film, President John F. Kennedy, played perfectly by James Marsden, tells Cecil that his son and the freedom riders were changing his heart. When they let their light shine before others (Mt. 5:16) they were changing hearts and minds.
One major turn of events in the movie was the murder of MLK and the violence that followed. Traveling through protests of looting and robbery one night, Cecil describes it as not knowing what country he was in. He stands with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) on the porch, watching the smoke rise from the fires sets merely blocks away, worried for their safety and no doubt the future of their country. Louis has an incredible change in approach at this point, joining the black panther party and embracing the more militant and violent approach they used to bring about civil rights for blacks. I as happy that the film correctly portrayed this move by Louis, and the stance of that group, in a bad light. Louis’ demeanor, his looks and his attitude toward his country almost immediately turn negative and hostile. At one point when being bailed out of jail, Louis and his brother have a “tough love” type of heart to heart conversation. His younger brother pokes fun at his new look and approach, and reveals to him that he will be joining the army to fight in the Vietnam War. Louis of course objects to this, to which his brother proclaims, “You fight your country! I wanna fight for my country!” Whatever your opinion of the war, it can’t be denied that this is an admirable quality and you can see that it convicts Louis a little bit. Eventually, while at a very candid meeting of the black panthers, Louis realizes the error of his ways and puts his involvement with that group and those tactics behind him. His heart was pricked and he had a decisive moment of repentance, which Christians can certainly relate to.
Two hours after we see Cecil watch his father murdered in 1926, the movie starts to wrap up with the triumphant feeling Cecil and Gloria experienced upon leading up to voting for Barack Obama for President in 2008. A suitable ending to this touching drama, taking us through some of the most difficult times in our nations history.
My Rating: 3.5/5
There is a lot to like about this film and I think Lee Daniels did a good job in what will likely go down as a classic. Exiting the theater I was thinking probably 4/5, but thinking back on the film there was a lot that got lost in the mix. What I mean is that this film tries to cover so much that it inevitably spends a very short time on some pretty amazing moments and events. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does force a lot of context and detail to be smashed in so this doesn’t turn into a 6-hour event. The acting was pretty solid. Whitaker does a fine job as the butler, but there were some moments where I felt his true feelings could’ve been better expressed in his body language. Oprah Winfrey is terrific, she really impressed me. I was about 50/50 on the portrayal of the presidents, all 8 of them! As expected, every Republican president was cast in a bad light while the good traits in the Democrat Presidents were highlighted. I liked the roles that Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. played as fellow butlers. I think that camaraderie could have been expanded upon a bit and given us more of a personal insight on Cecil. Most period pieces like this rely on an abundance of specific portrayals of the wardrobe and landscape that are accurate to the time, but there were a number of anachronisms in this film that seem like they should have been easily noticed and fixed. Overall this is a good movie and certainly worth a rental, but it’s not the “black Forrest Gump” as some have claimed.