by Celia Gress
One of many learning opportunities students were provided with on Martin Luther King Jr. day was to watch Lee Daniels’ The Butler. This film is a biography of the life of Cecil Gains, starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.
Cecil Gains was a butler to over eight American presidents during his White House career. This biography takes a look at many key moments in American society: the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and JFK’s presidency and assassination are all important moments that deeply alter the characters’ lives in the film.
Gains dutifully does his job as a reliable butler who knows his place for his time period. Gains focuses on his family and their well-being instead of being a leader in the civil rights movement. This film was a good choice to help celebrate and learn during MLK day because it provides a cultural look at an individual such as Cecil Gains, and then compares him to his oldest son – who chose to fight back for his culture and help change American cultural norms.
Gains’ son actively took part in the civil rights movement; he was in and out of jail from a young age because of his protests. This film gives today’s viewers a good idea of what protestors, both African American and Caucasian, went through in order for society to function as it does today.
The Butler showed students what happened at some of the very first sit-ins. Protestors peacefully sat in a “white” section of a diner. The result was beatings and verbal abuse. The film also depicted protestors being burned and with food and hot liquid.
We have all learned about this in our history textbooks, some of us may have imagined it even, but The Butler puts it into visual context to help us fully realize the sacrifice that much of society made during the civil rights movement.
It also showed something that textbooks did not fully cover, in my opinion – how these protestors prepared for the violence they would endure. Each protestor put themselves through practice beatings and endured racial slurs from one another. They actually conditioned themselves for protesting in a similar way that many of us today condition for sports or other activities.
They selflessly practiced and prepared for something they knew would be a terrible experience. This film helps our generation realize how far society has come in such a short time. Families were tested, people degraded, and some even lost their lives, all so we could live with the equal rights we have today. MLK Day reminded us all to continue hoping for an even better tomorrow.