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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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Louis of France: At his coronation as king of France, Louis IX bound himself by oath to behave as God’s anointed, as the father of his people and feudal lord of the King of Peace. Other kings had done the same, of course. Louis was different in that he actually interpreted his kingly duties in the light of faith. After the violence of two previous reigns, he brought peace and justice. 
<p>He was crowned king at 12, at his father’s death. His mother, Blanche of Castile, ruled during his minority. When he was 19 and his bride 12, he was married to Marguerite of Provence. It was a loving marriage, though not without challenge. They had 11 children. </p><p>Louis “took the cross” for a Crusade when he was 30. His army seized Damietta ini Egypt but not long after, weakened by dysentery and without support, they were surrounded and captured. Louis obtained the release of the army by giving up the city of Damietta in addition to paying a ransom. He stayed in Syria four years. </p><p>He deserves credit for extending justice in civil administration. His regulations for royal officials became the first of a series of reform laws. He replaced trial by battle with a form of examination of witnesses and encouraged the use of written records in court. </p><p>Louis was always respectful of the papacy, but defended royal interests against the popes and refused to acknowledge Innocent IV’s sentence against Emperor Frederick II. </p><p>Louis was devoted to his people, founding hospitals, visiting the sick and, like his patron St. Francis (October 4), caring even for people with leprosy. (He is one of the patrons of the Secular Franciscan Order.) Louis united France—lords and townsfolk, peasants and priests and knights—by the force of his personality and holiness. For many years the nation was at peace. </p><p>Every day Louis had 13 special guests from among the poor to eat with him, and a large number of poor were served meals near his palace. During Advent and Lent, all who presented themselves were given a meal, and Louis often served them in person. He kept lists of needy people, whom he regularly relieved, in every province of his dominion. </p><p>Disturbed by new Muslim advances in Syria, he led another crusade in 1267, at the age of 41. His crusade was diverted to Tunis for his brother’s sake. The army was decimated by disease within a month, and Louis himself died on foreign soil at the age of 44. He was canonized 27 years later.</p> American Catholic Blog God passes through the thicket of the world, and wherever His glance falls He turns all things to beauty. <br />–St. John of the Cross

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