By Joe McKeever
Anytime a pastor stands in the pulpit to give his opinion on a movie currently playing which he and his wife have just seen, look for trouble.
Some will resent that a pastor goes to the movies. Of those who don’t mind, some will be concerned that he admits it publicly.
Some will be concerned that the movie was not rated G and produced by Good-and-Nice Productions of Hometown, USA.
The balance of the congregation will split between those who agree with the pastor and appreciate his “take” on the movie and those upset because the movie takes liberties with history or offends their pet group, contains a mild profanity or shows the married couple in bed.
“The Butler” is in the theaters now. “Based on a true story” usually means the basic framework is historical but much of the rest has been concocted out of whole cloth. The movie has been out a couple of weeks and so on Labor Day some of my family and I decided to take it in. The reviews we’ve seen have been positive, so we were expecting an enjoyable outing.
And it was that. It was also thought-provoking and convicting.
The box office lady said the earlier showings had sold out, so we might want to grab our seats quickly.
Now, I am not pastoring a church and probably would not talk about the movie–and almost any other movie–from the pulpit if I were. But, as a 73-year-old retiree with a ton of friends but no constituents, we assume no one much cares one way or the other what I saw or how I felt. With that in mind–that is, with everyone agreeing not to get upset one way or the other–what follows is my review of “The Butler.” (Some of the points made below are in response to comments from Facebook friends.
I forgot to mention that the movie was filmed here in New Orleans. All right now….
1) The history of it.
Compress a half century of history into one 2-hour movie and you will necessarily take a few liberties and cut some corners. In this production, the Gaines family begins by being the victims of brutal racial prejudice in the 1920s (the mother is raped by a white farm-owner then her husband is killed for caring about it), then takes a front-row seat for the changing of America during the Eisenhower years through the Reagan period, and finally lives to see Barack Obama move into the White House. Son Louis Gaines participates in Woolworth sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, Black Panther meetings, and is jailed numerous times before eventually becoming a congressman. Whether one family has done all the things the movie makes the Gaineses out to have done is questionable, but it works for a good coherent story.
2) The motives behind it.
Did the movie-makers have an agenda, as some critics have said? If they didn’t, they are the first producers in the history of filmdom not to have one. Of course they did. They wanted to show this country’s transition during the racially torn decades of the 50s through the 80s through the eyes of a White House butler and his family. They wanted to honor the heroes of the civil rights movement, to celebrate how far they have come, and to leave audiences feeling the work is not completed.
In all of this, they did a great job.
Hey, I’m a white Southerner. I do not pretend to understand what it was like for African-Americans in this country during the dark days of Jim Crow laws or the stormy 1960s. (They would be insulted if I said I did.) But I know this: if I were an African-American film producer, this is the kind of stuff I’d be turning out. Tell your story. Educate the youngsters. Ignore the critics.
3) The personal touch.
Some of the most dramatic civil strife acts, I practically witnessed personally. We lived in Birmingham in the late 1950s through mid-1964, and were acquainted with the sit-ins, the fire hoses, and the burned out Freedom Rider bus. (The bombing of the church was not a part of this story, but I recall that also.) A couple of times I leaned over to my 16-year-old granddaughters and whispered that, “I saw the bus” and “I remember where I was when we heard of this.”
Our family stood outside the theater and talked about the movie before going our separate ways. I admitted that when some of these things happened in our hometown of Birmingham, we watched it on the television news, but most of the white citizens were afraid to speak out and so kept silent. Thirty miles up Highway 31, in the little church I pastored, I have no memory of addressing any aspect of these goings-on and so assume I didn’t. Doing that now is easy; to speak out then took courage of which I had very little.
4) The emotion.
Some of my friends say they wept a number of times in the story.
I teared-up a few times. Some of it was that moving. Later, I told my wife that I wanted to go up to every black person I saw on the streets and apologize. She said, “Apologize for what?” I said, “For everything. Every blessed thing.”
I know, I know. This kind of admission gets one characterized as “a bleeding heart.” I’ll take that and run with it.
5) The country’s leaders.
The presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan) are represented in the movie. Most came through all right, but a couple of my Facebook friends were upset that President Reagan was not treated as an icon the way conservatives do today. I thought they presented him in a balanced, caring light for most of the scenes in which he appeared. It was he who first invited the butler (Mr. Gaines) and his wife to attend a state dinner as guests, and Reagan who made it possible for the black ushers to receive equal pay and be promoted for higher positions. The fact that Reagan opposed the congressional action about South Africa’s “apartheid” is common knowledge.
A side note: I’m amused the way some of my politically conservative friends want to beatify President Reagan. Having lived through that period and followed politics closely during that time, I know for a fact that his record was spotty. Some things he got right and some he got wrong. He was a great speaker (of speeches written by others, we must not forget, although presumably he said nothing he did not believe) but with the advancement of age, he was becoming more and more disengaged in the details of running this country. (Please no one write me to take issue with this. It’s a matter of record.)
6. The recommendation
Would I recommend you go see the movie? Yes, without question.
Would I go back to see it again or purchase the DVD? No. I’ve seen it once and that’s enough. It’s not my story exactly, but the story of a proud segment of our society, and I respect that highly. To pick the story apart–to nitpick it–is to do them a great disservice, and haven’t they had enough of that?
Should you take the kids? Yes, particularly the older children. Then, have conversations with them later on what happened and what it means to them.
Joe McKeever is retired missions director for the New Orleans Baptist Association. Before that Mr. McKeever pastored churches in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and North Carolina.