Over the last year, I’ve seen 42, Fruitvale Station, 12 Years A Slave, and Django Unchained. Each of them presented a time period in American history where racism and prejudice caused great pain, even death, as the country struggled through toward civil rights for everyone (yes, I understand Django is a strange Quentin Tarantino mashup of styles, not truth). But then theres’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler that isn’t as graphic as 12 Years and takes more liberty’s with a literally true story than Fruitvale Station, yet often shades the degree of brutality like 42 did. What’s it trying to get across to us? What can we take from it?
As a child, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) asks his father why he isn’t defending his mother from their plantation owner, and his father is murdered on the spot. Gaines is directly responsible for his father’s death, and suddenly, a movie that has a fuzzy, retrospective feel is looking a bit less like an after school special. But the following twists and turns, the aging of the kid Gaines to the middle-aged Gaines (who Whitaker plays through elderly stages), dilutes the intensity for awhile, and weakens the power of the film.
Still, there comes a time when we see Gaines’ life, based on the real Eugene Allen, struggle through several Presidents, as a quiet, subservient type, while his son (David Oyelowo) tries out the paths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Panthers, thinking that his father hasn’t done enough. Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” closes with “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” We’re not made to think that Gaines or his son are superior, but we can recognize that when dealing with oppression, both had to choose their own way, and that each had an impact.
Unfortunately, The Butler was less powerful for me because of the famous actors and actresses who moonlighted their way through it. John Cusack, Robin Williams, Cuba Gooding, Live Schreiber, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Mariah Carey, and Vanessa Redgrave all spend fractional time onscreen, but their parts are often famous and we find ourselves going “that’s so-and-so playing that-other-famous-person” rather than allowing the story to flow naturally. It’s distracting! Still…
12 Years a Slave, 42, Fruitvale Station, and The Butler all deal with racism in their own way, and in each of them, someone gets it and takes a stand that changes history, that changes the way that it history remembers them and those they impacted. How they do it is their decision, but how they impact the world varies. Gaines/Allen impacted policy because he chose his moments, like Esther before King Xerxes as she bet her life on telling the truth, and the U.S. is different because of it.
What roads do you have in front of you? What difference will you make? Will you choose violence or non-violence? Will you seek God’s direction or try to make it on your own? Your future and the future of others lay hanging in the balance.