Last night I stopped at a Redbox to grab a movie for girl’s night with my sister and our friend Kathy who was in town. Not the most savvy hollywood movie buff, I flipped the pages of selections and stopped when I came across Lee Daniels’ The Butler. I had heard good things when it was released months back and thought it would be a decent pick.
My sister is the mother of an 11 month old baby who doesn’t sleep well. This means my sister is a constantly exhausted woman who hasn’t slept much in 11 months. We took over-under bets on how soon she’d crash. Not only did she make it through the entire movie, but she asked to pause during every baby check. The Butler is that good.
It’s good because it’s captivating and brilliant in a way only a film based on a true story can be. The film follows the emotional experience of a black man working as a butler alongside United States Presidents for 34 years all while the civil rights movement takes place outside the walls of the White House. The interactions Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker) has with the presidents shows the human side of a massive global issue. As an American watching the film, it compels you to follow the historic journey of a sad and difficult time in our country’s history. To think the brutal acts of extreme violence toward black people were done in our nation’s neighborhoods just a handful of decades ago, it’s hard to believe it’s true.
Gaines states, on the way back to visit the cotton farm he grew up as a field worker on, “Americans always turn a blind eye to our own. We look out to the world and judge. We hear about the concentration camps, but these camps went on for 200 years in America.” With the societal advancements that have come over the years, it is so critical for films like this to force us to take pause and reflect on the times of past that have made up the realities of today. As we point fingers to those others currently fostering unjust communities, we must first reflect on the inequality of our own past, and challenge ourselves to question how far we’ve really come.
The film ends in 2008 with the momentous election of President Barack Obama. The speech started with, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer… It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled – Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America.”
In 2008, I lived in Chicago and stood with the crowds in Grant Park as the first African American man was voted in by the American people as President of the United States of America. It didn’t matter what political party any of us identified with, we all were there to be a part of history. I linked arms with black women who were crying next to me as the future president said the words above. I understood it was a big day, but as a young white woman, it wasn’t possible for me to fully comprehend the emotions of the women as we experienced the same moment. The Butler brought me back to that night and made me feel proud of the women next to me, and every other person who had felt racial discrimination who felt a new sense of hope in our nation’s future on that significant day.
While watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of the Big Shared World journey and the importance of humanizing hard to comprehend situations through effective storytelling. By personifying the bigger picture, the film was able to connect audiences with a thought provoking and emotional experience about a time when segregation and deeply ingrained discrimination was the norm. I do not have the power of Oprah, but now that I have been empowered by Oprah’s film, I hope that the people I have conversations with in the coming months can help provide a narrative that is human and insightful.
There is a poem by a German pastor Martin Niemöller, originally written in the late 1940s, that is often cited as a poignant statement on the dangers of political and societal apathy. I read it as a personal challenge to build empathy and speak up for my fellow human.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
I plan to embark on this journey to address just that challenge – my role in the world and how I can speak out to be a voice for the vulnerable, quieted voices. What if there were no labels, no borders, no black and white. What if there was a day when a poem would read:
Humans came for other humans, and I spoke out — Because I was also human.
In joined voice. -C