We recently sat in a theater in Keauhou, Hawaii, watching The Butler. Most folks applauded at the end for a writer, cast and crew that could not hear the praise. We wanted each other to hear it, to share the moment. Most sat still and watched the names of all who made the film roll by on the screen, tears streaming down our faces.
Movies can entertain, annoy, and provoke us. They can interpret our culture in a unique way that only mass media can. The Butler took me back to the sixties and reminded me of how painful, thought provoking and energizing those times were. Cecil’s story is based on a real story of a butler at the White House, powerfully traversing time from 1926 forward to the election of President Obama. His sacrifice and ultimate rise to recognition are poignant and powerful reminders of what may be required of those who must endure to overcome adversity.
Many of us who were college students in the 60s had parents who lived through the depression and very hard times. Cecil Gaines picked cotton and received no formal education. My father had a 7th grade education and went to work on the railroad at age 13 to help support his family. Those kinds of experiences created strong people who valued education and worked very hard to create opportunities for their children. We, their children, had no historical perspective and wondered why they were so hardened and stoic. We could see the injustices around us and screamed about them, while they endured pain quietly. What we didn’t always realize was that we had the freedom to be insulted by what we saw because what they endured gave us that freedom.
In The Butler, a major theme is the classic father-son conflict. Oprah Winfrey plays the long-suffering wife and mother caught in the middle. Lewis, the son of Cecil Gaines, is an activist, a freedom rider, a Black Panther, who accuses his father of complacency. Cecil is a butler to five presidents in the White House, serving faithfully, yet influencing events in his own quiet way. Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker bring such depth to their roles that the viewer shares their frustrations and heartaches. Those of us who lived through those times experienced the news of the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the loss of family and friends who served in Vietnam. Those were painful events that we felt deeply and this movie successfully took us right back to that pain.
Great movies, such as Gandhi and Schindler’s List, interpret the past and make us think. They help us process complex events and people. They remind us that not everything is about US. We occupy a larger world where many lack the chance to eat regularly, be educated and experience the most basic freedoms. The Butler made me think once again about our personal responsibility to help others and protect the unprotected.
– Tim Merriman