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ON FAITH & MEDIA View Comments

Lee Daniels' The Butler

By
John Mulderig
Source: Catholic News Service


Robin Williams and Forest Whitaker star in a scene from the movie "Lee Daniels' The Butler."
A frequently heard slogan of the late 1960s held that "the personal is political." Whatever its value as a rallying cry, that phrase certainly fits the affecting fact-based drama "Lee Daniels' The Butler" (Weinstein) in which the private and public realms collide.

Drawing on a 2008 Washington Post article by reporter Wil Haygood, director Daniels ("Precious") tells a fictionalized version of the life of former White House butler Eugene Allen (1919-2010). Allen's screen stand-in is Cecil Gaines, played by Forest Whitaker.

Escaping the vicious racism of the early 20th-century Deep South -- flashbacks to the Georgia cotton plantation where he was raised prove harrowing -- Cecil makes his way to the relatively less oppressive surroundings of Washington. There he masters the art of providing elegant service to the all-white patrons of an elite hotel, a skill that requires him to suppress not only his true feelings, but his views on any controversial matter.

Cecil's discretion wins him the favorable notice of a White House agent, and he secures a coveted place on the domestic staff of the executive mansion. As he proceeds to work, close at hand, with every president from Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman), Cecil cherishes the cautious hope that, under their leadership, white Americans will eventually see the light on racial issues.

This patient, conservative stance, however, increasingly conflicts with the civil rights activism of Cecil's older son Louis (David Oyelowo). And the long hours Cecil puts in at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue leave his strong-willed but fragile wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) feeling neglected.

Of the several appealing performances from which the movie benefits, Winfrey's complex portrayal of Gloria is perhaps the most impressive. Earthy yet spiritual, a commanding matriarch yet a woman tempted both by the bottle and by a slick, seductive neighbor (Terrence Howard), Gloria follows an erratic course through life—one very much in contrast with her husband's steady ways.

In addition to its subtle fictitious characterizations, the surprisingly nuanced view of the various real-life chief executives offered by screenwriter Danny Strong's script—an irretrievably self-absorbed Richard Nixon (John Cusack) alone excepted—also helps to keep the unfolding events from feeling like a chronological checklist of postwar history.

Still, it does come across as a bit too pat when Louis moves, with seeming inevitability, from training for sit-ins at lunch counters to enrolling as a Freedom Rider to enlisting in the Black Panther movement. All the more so, since his on-cue, Malcolm X-inspired radicalization is followed, in short order, by his younger brother Charlie's (Elijah Kelley) departure for Vietnam.

Additionally, those of a Republican bent should note that the climactic first-term election of the current commander-in-chief is presented not only in an understandably celebratory light but in one that borders on adulation.

Vulgar language and other red-flag content would normally prevent recommendation of "Lee Daniels' The Butler" for any audience but grown-ups. But the moral significance of this uplifting journey—undertaken within a context of implicit religious faith and strong marital commitment—is such that at least some parents may consider it acceptable for older teens.

The film contains occasional action violence, an adultery theme, numerous mature references, a half-dozen uses of profanity, a couple of rough terms and some crude and crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III —adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

*****
John Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.



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John of Capistrano: It has been said the Christian saints are the world’s greatest optimists. Not blind to the existence and consequences of evil, they base their confidence on the power of Christ’s redemption. The power of conversion through Christ extends not only to sinful people but also to calamitous events. 
<p>Imagine being born in the 14th century. One-third of the population and nearly 40 percent of the clergy were wiped out by the bubonic plague. The Western Schism split the Church with two or three claimants to the Holy See at one time. England and France were at war. The city-states of Italy were constantly in conflict. No wonder that gloom dominated the spirit of the culture and the times. </p><p>John Capistrano was born in 1386. His education was thorough. His talents and success were great. When he was 26 he was made governor of Perugia. Imprisoned after a battle against the Malatestas, he resolved to change his way of life completely. At the age of 30 he entered the Franciscan novitiate and was ordained a priest four years later. </p><p>His preaching attracted great throngs at a time of religious apathy and confusion. He and 12 Franciscan brethren were received in the countries of central Europe as angels of God. They were instrumental in reviving a dying faith and devotion. </p><p>The Franciscan Order itself was in turmoil over the interpretation and observance of the Rule of St. Francis. Through John’s tireless efforts and his expertise in law, the heretical Fraticelli were suppressed and the "Spirituals" were freed from interference in their stricter observance. </p><p>He helped bring about a reunion with the Greek and Armenian Churches, unfortunately only a brief arrangement. </p><p>When the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, he was commissioned to preach a crusade for the defense of Europe. Gaining little response in Bavaria and Austria, he decided to concentrate his efforts in Hungary. He led the army to Belgrade. Under the great General John Hunyadi, they gained an overwhelming victory, and the siege of Belgrade was lifted. Worn out by his superhuman efforts, Capistrano was an easy prey to an infection after the battle. He died October 23, 1456.</p> American Catholic Blog When we are linked by the power of prayer, we as it were, hold each other’s hand as we walk side by side along a slippery path; and thus by the bounteous disposition of charity, it comes about that the harder each one leans on the other, the more firmly we are riveted together in brotherly love. —St. Gregory the Great

 
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