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‘The Butler,’ ‘I Have a Dream’ and the Trayvon Martin fallout

New film, speech anniversary, Florida verdict coalesce into ‘kairos’ moment

August 27, 2013

WALTON, Ky.

During the weekend that Lee Daniels’ The Butler topped the movie market, the media were full of stories and pictures about the upcoming 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream Speech” — and people were still discussing the Florida jury’s decision that set free the killer of Trayvon Martin. All this led me to think this might be a kairos moment for churches and their leaders. 

Kairos, of course, is the Greek word used in Galatians 4:4 and Ephesians 1:10 for the special time in which God acts decisively in Christ — the word translated in both texts as “fullness of time.” The word and its concept have often been used at a time of crisis.

I believe that here in America the convergence of Lee Daniels’ powerful film, the remembrance of the powerful speech that changed America and the powerful emotions engendered by discussions and debates around the Trayvon Martin case offer churches a great opportunity to promote the dream that King bequeathed to a divided nation. Here is why, and what you as a person of faith might do. 

The Butler is a fictional story based on an article in The Washington Post. The film’s black butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) might be a fictionalized version of the real Eugene Allen, but the events he witnessed inside and outside the White House are true. They include Dwight D. Eisenhower’s sending in troops to protect the students integrating Little Rock Central High School; the Kennedys and the Freedom Riders; the Selma March and Lyndon B. Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech; the Mississippi Summer Freedom project; the urban riots following King’s assassination; the Vietnam War and protests; Watergate; and much, much more. 

The film includes enough material to fuel a series of discussions about racism and resistance to it. Some have accused the film of being “boring” or say that butler Cecil Gaines is too passive. They miss the point of the film — the gradual and painful transformation of a man fearful of change to one able to embrace it.

The film shows first how Cecil, representing a whole generation of African Americans, was forced into passivity for his very survival. The murder of his father for mildly protesting the plantation owner’s rape of the former’s wife was a horrifying demonstration of what happens when a black man in the South questions his superior. Years later, when Cecil grew up and became a junior butler at the White House, he was ordered to serve, not to speak or offer any kind of opinion. The arc of the film is the almost glacial change that Cecil goes through during three decades of service, during which external, cataclysmic changes were shaking the nation. 

The film artfully includes many conversations the black characters have among themselves, the most revealing being those Cecil has with oldest son, Louis, who becomes involved with the civil rights sit-ins. When Louis is arrested, he tries to explain his reasons for joining the civil rights movement, but Cecil is not yet ready to understand the rebellious behavior that is threatening his peace.

This anger later turns to fear when Louis joins the Freedom Riders and his bus is burned. After King’s assassination, Louis joins the Black Panthers. At the dinner table, Louis scorns Cecil’s acceptance of the status quo, revealing a bias against the “successful Negro” his father admires, actor Sidney Poitier. Louis calls Poitier a “rich Uncle Tom” and a “white man’s fantasy” of what a black man is. This so enrages Cecil that he almost literally throws Louis out of the house. 

It will be a long and painful time before the two become reconciled. During that interval both of them will change: Cecil overcomes the years of personal and cultural brainwashing enslaving him to accept things as they are; Louis realizes that it was his father’s hard work that fed and clothed him and made him the person he is. 

The film does not highlight King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, partly because so much of Louis’ civil rights activities are shown during the Kennedy segment. 

There can be no escaping the speech this August, though, with TIME Magazine’s great issue exploring the speech’s history and impact being but one of many examples of media coverage. This coverage is good and necessary, especially for generations too young to remember what a watershed moment that speech was.

Filled with images of equality, this speech can inspire us, as the Letter of James puts it, to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” I would pick up on the phrase “deceive themselves” as applying today to those who think that the civil rights movement has achieved its goals.

In the recent Supreme Court decision striking down an important part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his majority opinion, “Our country has changed.” In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed that the country has changed, but not as the majority of her colleagues think. The change is mainly in the way that racism is expressed today, such as in racial gerrymandering of districts and attempts to curtail early voting and require special IDs.

As further proof that race is a factor in our lives, there is the case of unarmed teenaged Trayvon Martin, killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman toting a gun. Although the facts are murky and the stand your ground law weighed in Zimmerman’s favor, most of the nation was shocked by the not guilty verdict. Barack Obama shared some of his own response, saying, “I think it is important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.” 

This fall, with The Butler showing in our theaters and King’s poetic words still ringing in our ears, can be a kairos time for the church. It might be a long time before there is such a union of a good film, a moment celebrating the past and a national conversation about whether or not justice is meted out equally to all races. 

The convergence of movie, celebration and debate reminds me of the theory held by some Bible scholars that the Star of Bethlehem was the convergence of several planets and bright stars, forming a light bright enough to guide the magi. May we be as willing as they to follow such a light.” 

Edward McNulty is a film reviewer for Presbyterians Today, a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service and editor of the online journal Visual Parables.

  1. Thanks, Todd, for the correction. I should have separated the comments related to the stand your ground laws from the trial. As you note, this was not a factor in the trial itself.

    by Edward McNulty

    September 25, 2013

  2. Edward-Please do more research before commenting on controversial matters. "Stand your ground" had nothing to do with the Zimmerman case. Nothing at all. A stand your ground instruction was not given to the jury. As for your comment that "most of the nation was shocked" by the verdict, perhaps you are right. The media did the nation a huge disservice with its one-sided coverage from the start. But most commentators who actually followed the trial were not shocked. There simply was not evidence of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Thanks for considering my thoughts on this.

    by Todd Capitano

    August 28, 2013

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