Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V-5; L-5 ; S/N-2 . Running time: 2 hours 12 min.
I say to God, my rock,
‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because the enemy oppresses me?’
I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son and son against father…
But when he came to himself…
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
How propitious that this powerful drama, based on an article in the Washington Post was released during the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech! The film’s butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) may be a fictionalized version of the real Eugene Allen, but the events he witnessed, inside and outside the White House, are true, indeed historic, including Pres. Eisenhower’s sending in troops to protect the students integrating the Little Rock Central High School; the Kennedys and the Freedom Riders; the Selma March and Pres. John’s “We Shall Overcome” speech; the Mississippi Summer Feedom Project; the urban riots following the murder of Dr. King; the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, and much, much more. Some critics have mentioned Forest Gump in their reviews, but by means of juxtapositioning of scenes in the White House with those occuring outside its orderly interior, as well as by some telling conversations among black characters, Lee Daniels and scriptwriter Danny Strong have created much more of a social justice film by comparison.
Cecil’s story begins in 1926 in a Georgia cotton field (not the Virginia of real-life Eugene Allen) where 8 year-old Cecil (Michael Rainey, Jr.) is upset to see Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer) force his mother Hattie Pearl (Moriah Carey) into a barn. Knowing what has transpired there, the boy incites his father Earl (David Banner) to make a mild protest, whereupon the white overseer draws his pistol and shoots his field hand. This brutal scene, considered by some reviewers as injected for shock value, actually serves both not only to show how dangerous it was for a black to show even the slightest sign of resistance to white domination, but also to explain why, as years later the now elderly son says that he has always worn two faces, the outward, subservient one, and the private one. Had Cecil had any schooling, he might have used Paul Laurence Dunbar’s famous poem with its opening lines, “We wear the mask that grins and lies,/It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes.” This powerful poem, addressed to blacks, describes what virtually every African American was forced to do during the Jim Crow era in order to survive in a racist society in which a white could kill a black with impunity. In its third stanza the poem reveals the pain of having to wear the mask, “We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries/To thee from tortured souls arise.”
Ironically, it is his father’s murder that improves the boy’s work situation. The white matriarch Anabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave) takes pity on the father-deprived boy and takes him out of the sweltering cotton field to make him a “house Negro,” which means he is taught good manners and dress and how to set a table and serve the dishes. Above all, she gives him the order that will shape his life ever after, “A room should feel empty when you’re in it.” She means to be kind, and so is completely unaware of how dehumaizing is this custom of regarding servants as pieces of furniture. Later on Cecil will see that the attitude at the White House is little different. No wonder that African Americans read far more into the “White” of the Exceutive Mansion than whtes do.
When he is a teenager Cecil realizes that he cannot stay any longer on the plantation where his father’s killer is one of the heirs. His mother, suffering mentally ever since the murder of her husband, barely is aware of his leaving. Mrs. Westfall, obviously supportive of the lad’s decsision slips a book into his bosom as he bids her farewell. I wish more had been made of this—had she been like the white woman in the 1995 film Once Upon a Time…When We Were Colored wherein an aristocratic white woman had encouraged a black boy to read her books? Anyway, away from the plantation young Cecil falls onto hard times, unable to find work, and thus reduced to trying to steal a cake to feed his starving body. The kindly black assistant at the shop helps get him hired on, and teaches the boy even more than about serving—at one point he orders the boy not to say “house nigger.” “It’s a white man’s word,” he says. From there Cecil goes to Washington to work at a posh hotel where the demands for decorum are even higher, and then when a White House staffer is impressed by him, he is taken on at the White House.
Eisenhower (Robin Williams) is the first of the Presidents that Cecil serves, and the episode depicts the days when Ike is agonizing about sending troops in to protect the black students integrating the Little Rock Central High School. He is extremely reluctant to do so, realizing how explosive the racial situation is, and how politically costly siding with the “Negores” would be. An almost spooky scene during his term is the visit to the kitchen by Vice President Nixon (a strangely cast John Cusack) in search of votes in the upcoming election. The discomfort is apparent on both sides, with the blacks reluctantly accepting (but not putting on) the “Elect Nixon” badges he passes out to them. Nixon asks what the men would like. When one of them says that pay equal to that of the white staff, Nixon promises that he will change that, but when he does move into the White House, rebuffs the request—of course, this is 8 years later after the promise, so we can assume that he did not remember the promise.
Of all the presidentail terms depicted, I was most impressed by the incidents unfolding during the all too brief Kennedy admininistration, and not just because of the sorrowful events of the assassination. In this sequence juxtaposition of scenes was used so powerfully, the camera shifting back and forth between guests being served at a White House dinner and scenes of Cecil’s son taking part in the civil rights movement despite his father’s orders. Other than in the TV film about the coming of the civil rights movement to a small Mississippi town, Daniels’ film does the best job of showing the training in discipline and courage of the college students—black and white—who intended to integrate a whites only lunch counter at a Nashville Woolworths dime store.
Louis, the oldest son of Cecil and Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), is one of many Fisk University students attracted to James Lawson (Jesse Williams), the young minister colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr. leading the workshop on nonviolence. After lecturing on Gandhi, each student in a role play is subjected to a harsh round of taunts and racial slurs from other students. A white lad tells Lawson that he cannot call the person he’s supposed to attack a “nigger,” that just isn’t something he can do. Lawson insists, pointing out that the role playing must be realistic. The student, tears rising in his eyes, complies. Adding to the realism are the mustard and catsup poured onto the heads of the trainees. The camera cuts away to Cecil and his colleagues, immaculately dressed in tuxedos preparing for a state dinner. The student action moves on to Woolworths where the white help and patrons are shocked that the mixed race group of students are transgressing the time honored system of Jim Crow seating. They are refused service, insulted, and soon, as toughs arrive, hateful words transpose into spiteful deeds. “Stand up!” the sit-in students are ordered. “Stand up,” the guests seated at the White House are told as the President and First Lady enter the room. The guests are served courteously by the black staff, whereas at Woolworths those aspiring to eat at the lunchcounter are not only refused service by the waitress, but are covered with condiments, knocked off their stools, and some of them beaten, and then hauled off to jail.
There is much more to tell of this excellent film, that strangely on the Imdb site has been accused by some viewers as boring and too one-sided. Cecil is castigated because he is so subservient, taking little part in the events around him. These posters forget that virtually all his mentors, from Anabeth at the plantation on have trained him to be what novelist Ralph Ellison called “the invisible man,” training that was reinforced by his superiors at the White House—there he was to hear nothing and say nothing—to “wear the mask,” as Dunbar wrote. Indeed, at that time the whole culture—literature, movies, radio, and degrading images of “Negroes” in advertising proclaimed that the Negro was an inferior who must be kept in his place!
Louis is important in the story because he represents the younger generation of blacks who refuse to accept their parents’ obsequious relationship to whites. We watch Louis himself develop from a believer in nonviolence to a period when, disillusioned by the perception of the failure of nonviolence following the murder of Dr. King, he and his girlfriend join the Black Pamther Party, leading to Cecil ordering them from the house during a dinner table quarrel. But when told that they must be ready to kill white men, Louis leaves, eventually finishing college and becoming a candidate for office in Tennessee. For many years he remains estranged from his father until…
Both Gloria and Cecil move away from their opposition to the civil rights movent. Gloria herself has drawn back from an affair she had fallen into because Cecil’s long hours at the White House had left her alone most of the time. The change in Cecil must have begun when Pres. Kennedy asked him about Louis, showing that he already knew about the young man’s arrest record—16 times. Commenting on the Freedom Rides and sit-ins, the President says, “You know my brother says these kids changed his heart. They’ve changed mine too.” It will take a long time for Cecil’s heart to change, but by the time he quietly brings up to Pres. Reagon the matter (the second Presidnet he has approached) of the black staff’s unfair pay, he has come far enough to open up his heart again to Louis. It is a tender and moving scene. The film then returns to the scene which began the film, the retired Cecil sitting on a bench in the White House waiting to be ushered into the presence of the black President he never thought possible. When a black aide comes, expressing his admiration for him and saying that he will show him the way, the old man responds, “I know the way.”
Every person of faith should see this film and discuss it with others. White and African American pastors should seek each other out and see if their congregations are willing to meet together and talk about the issues raised. Some of the conversations the black characters have among themselves will surprise many whites about their assumptions and views, one example being how acclaimed actor Sidney Poittier is perceived by militant blacks. It is so good to see a film in which the story of blacks is told without bringing in on an equal basis a white character to share the star credits. Oh yes, the constellation of famous whites playing the supporting roles has garnered lots of attention, but essentially this is an African American story told by African Americans. It may be open to the charge of over simplifying a complex period in our nation’s history, but my response is, “This is a movie, not a history lecture. Lectures are good and necessary to cover the facts, but as a movie it does much more than a factual lecture can—by identifying with the characters we come to feel what they did and see the world through new eyes, their eyes that had welled up with tears so many times by the injustices committed against them.” Few films manage to accomplish so much in the minds and hearts of its audience. No wonder that the audience applauded at the matinee showing I attended.
The full version of this review containing 16 discussion questions and links to materials is in the Sept/Oct issue of Visual Parables.