Some brief thoughts on The Butler

Many of you may know that my undergraduate degree is in film studies. I love movies and watch them with a fairly critical eye. Last night, I was invited by our friends at The Pittsburgh Promise to attend an advance screening of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. It’s a film with a sprawling cast featuring Forest Whitaker as a butler who serves in the White House under several administrations from Eisenhower to Reagan, witnessing many important civil rights milestones. One always has to take a film that is “based on a true story” with a grain of salt, still there is something quite compelling in thinking about one person having such a front row seat to important historical landmarks. 
A couple of things jumped out for me while watching the film. I’ve seen dozens and dozens of newsreels and documentaries about the civil rights era. I have seen very few dramatizations of that era. The way certain events are captured primarily through the main character’s oldest son Louis (i.e. lunch counter sit ins, freedom rider bus bombings, and the Selma march) was incredibly well done and capture the struggle of those who were in involved in the civil rights movement in ways that feel more visceral than documentary footage. At times it was hard to watch. 
Close to the end of the film, Cecil Gaines (Whitaker) says in narration that “America has always been afraid to look at the way it treats its own”. That is one thing that this film is not afraid to do and it is why I think it is important. We’ve never shied away from having conversations about race here at the Project. Those conversations have oftentimes been emotional, stress-filled, and at times hurtful. We get through them because we’re working toward a common goal, but we often are left wondering “why do we have to talk about this stuff yet again?” Well, we’re going to continue having these conversations, but here’s why: 
1. We have to continue to grapple with the historical contexts that have created the environments in which our students and homeowners live. For many of us, we have intimate knowledge of these contexts, for others of us there is some distance. Nevertheless, we have to be willing to step into fray with those we serve. 
2. Racial reconciliation is the goal, but it can’t be a cheap reconciliation. It can’t be Kum Ba Yah singing with a blind eye toward reality. Reconciliation can’t and won’t happen in the absence of honest strides toward justice. Justice is all about making right what once was wrong and so we have to know what’s wrong. 
3. Finally, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We have to know some history so that we can break cycles of injustice and oppression in our neighborhoods and city. 
These things are hard work. You all know that. Sometimes we need safe entryways into these troubling conversations and a film like this provides us with just that. Ultimately, we pray, as Christ taught us, for God’s kingdom to come and on that day we will all sit around the table of fellowship as sisters and brothers. Until that day, may we have the courage to take a hard look at how we have treated our own and how we treat our own now and may we love all of our neighbors as we love ourselves. 

One thought on “Some brief thoughts on The Butler

  1. Thanks for your thoughts. I thought it was a very important movie too. I went to see it on the first Monday it was out, the earliest show available, to a packed house at WaterWorks Cinema. We were all talking and cheering and clapping–and crying. And you are spot on about dramatizations. I think it is great that “The Butler” came out in the same year as “42” which was another important/hard to watch film. These stories need to be told in ways that honor the history but also are accessible to those who were too young to “be there.”


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