A few days ago I posted a story about my memory of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech on the Washington Mall in 1963 (see I have a Dream posted on August 5). That memory brought to life again the story of my cousins Jim and Dan Harmeling who were active in the civil rights movement in Florida and suffered horribly as a result.
Tonight I watched a special about a movie premiering on August 16 called Lee Daniels’ The Butler. The movie is based in part on the life of Eugene Allen, a White House butler who served as a butler for several presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan. It views the events of the 35 years of the civil rights struggle through the eyes of a black family which is torn apart by church bombings, buses of freedom riders surrounded by the KKK, and demonstrators attacked by vicious dogs and powerful water hoses.
The movie is full of A-list stars playing unusual roles: Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, Robin Williams as President Eisenhower, Cuba Gooding, Jr. as a butler to name only a few. But the astonishing performances of Forrest Whitaker as the butler, Cecil Gaines, and Oprah Winfrey as his wife make this a moving story of the love within a family as well a historically accurate view of how ordinary people experienced these tumultuous decades.
A scene in the movie depicting the vile treatment of blacks and whites participating in a sit-in at a Woolworth’s diner is remarkably similar to my cousins’ stories of their sit-ins at Woolworth stores in several towns in Florida. The powerful personal connection I felt to those young men as I watched this scene is the reason I decided to write this post.
Anyone who dares to feel the heartbreaking emotions of the butler (as he serves several presidents with grace and bravery despite the humiliating treatment – even by his own son – that he had to endure) should see this movie. Anyone who is willing to ride the rollercoaster of dysfunctional family coming together with grace despite overwhelming pressure from inside and outside the family should see this movie. Anyone who wants to understand the forces that shaped the difficult relationships between blacks and whites in this country should see this movie. And any Christian who wants to understand the role that social injustice plays in generations of people should see this movie. And, finally, anyone who has difficulty understanding why blacks and whites feel so differently about the Trayvon Martin case should see this movie.