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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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Philip Neri: Philip Neri was a sign of contradiction, combining popularity with piety against the background of a corrupt Rome and a disinterested clergy, the whole post-Renaissance malaise. 
<p>At an early age, he abandoned the chance to become a businessman, moved to Rome from Florence and devoted his life and individuality to God. After three years of philosophy and theology studies, he gave up any thought of ordination. The next 13 years were spent in a vocation unusual at the time—that of a layperson actively engaged in prayer and the apostolate. </p><p>As the Council of Trent (1545-63) was reforming the Church on a doctrinal level, Philip’s appealing personality was winning him friends from all levels of society, from beggars to cardinals. He rapidly gathered around himself a group of laypersons won over by his audacious spirituality. Initially they met as an informal prayer and discussion group, and also served poor people in Rome. </p><p>At the urging of his confessor, he was ordained a priest and soon became an outstanding confessor, gifted with the knack of piercing the pretenses and illusions of others, though always in a charitable manner and often with a joke. He arranged talks, discussions and prayers for his penitents in a room above the church. He sometimes led “excursions” to other churches, often with music and a picnic on the way. </p><p>Some of his followers became priests and lived together in community. This was the beginning of the Oratory, the religious institute he founded. A feature of their life was a daily afternoon service of four informal talks, with vernacular hymns and prayers. Giovanni Palestrina was one of Philip’s followers, and composed music for the services. </p><p>The Oratory was finally approved after suffering through a period of accusations of being an assembly of heretics, where laypersons preached and sang vernacular hymns! (Cardinal Newman founded the first English-speaking house of the Oratory three centuries later.) </p><p>Philip’s advice was sought by many of the prominent figures of his day. He is one of the influential figures of the Counter-Reformation, mainly for converting to personal holiness many of the influential people within the Church itself. His characteristic virtues were humility and gaiety.</p> American Catholic Blog We need do no more than we are doing at present; that is, to love divine Providence and abandon ourselves in his arms and heart.<br />—St. Padre Pio

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