Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Butler

Went to see The Butler tonight. The movie is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American who served for some 34 years in the White House. Lest the cranky shut down and not listen, it is only loosely based on Allen's life.

Allen didn't grow up in Macon. His father wasn't killed as a child. He didn't have a son who was an activist, although he did have a son. He retired because it was time, not because he came to see his job as racially patronizing. Yes, yes, Reagan may have had geopolitical rather than racial reasons not to sanction South Africa over Apartheid.

What the movie does portray well is both the situation of black Americans in the middle part of the twentieth century and, implicitly, the benefits of white privilege in America. It portrays the powerlessness of blacks in the early part of the twentieth century in the face of injustice. It shows the ridiculous prejudice of the South and its stubborn insistence on segregation. It shows the obliviousness of whites who were in position not to worry about such things or who even got righteously indignant at "law breakers" like the activists who worked to make it impossible to be oblivious.

"White privilege" can be a difficult idea for a white person like me to grasp because it is not about something that seems "extra" to me as a white person. I may still struggle to pay my bills. I may still have all sorts of challenges of my own. White privilege has to do with how much harder it would be for me if I were black or of some other race in my same shoes.

When I walk into a store or down your average rural American street, I blend in. A Hispanic or a black might get a suspicious look in a similar store.  I might be watched, second guessed, profiled. Privilege is not so much about benefits I perceive as extra but about benefits I would definitely perceive if I were black or some other minority.

It is an amazing thing that even Christians can somehow convince themselves that they are standing up for right when "putting others in their place." No doubt many of those in the South thought they were justified in their anger toward troublemakers who refused to follow the rules and get to the back of the bus or use the right seats. It's not unlike the attitude today of some toward illegal immigrants who have broken the law in how they've entered this country. "We're right to tear their families apart because they're lawbreakers," as if Jesus and Paul were big on keeping the law.

The issues change, the attitudes don't.  A lot of state's rights talk today is the same old attitudes hiding behind different issues. Don't worry, our grandchildren will wag their heads at us too. The more localized the decision making, the more likely the exclusion and injustice.  The more people represented in the discussion, the more likely the fairness and evenhandedness.

I would have hoped that race would have disappeared as an issue by now.  In the year 2000 I might have said it was happening. But 9-11 and economic crisis have set us back.  People pull back into their cocoons when times are tough. Race seems as charged to me today as it has been since the 70s. I'm hoping it is just the last gasp before whites themselves become a racial minority.

I struggled not to cry as the movie ended.  It made me feel the pain of a good man in that era, in those situations. The specific characters in the movie were fictitious, but the people they represented were all too real.


Susan Moore said...

I love how Jesus breaks the chains of every prejudice that imprisons us. To learn how to be free from prejudice, we consume Him (Taste and see that the Lord is good..." psalm 34:8). I love the story of when He went to the well and waited. He waited for a particular person. But not just any person, but a woman from Samaria. And this Samarian woman was also soaking in sexual sin. He proclaimed His word to her and asked her to bring to Him one person. In her excitement of hearing and accepting His word (that was 100% pure truth), she was made by grace 100% pure free; and brought to Him her town. Thus the first recorded evangelist was born: A woman who led men to freedom in Christ (John 4).
"Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by washing with water through the Word, and to present her to Himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless" (Eph. 5:25-27).

Ken Schenck said...

I want to add that I actually thought the portrayal of Reagan was generally positive. In the movie, Reagan gets the black workers in the White House equal pay to the white workers. In the movie, Reagan gives money to people anonymously on the sly. I thought the invite to the dinner was portrayed as sincerely generous and warm on the part of Nancy Reagan.

And even if Allen felt honored historically to sit there, we miss the entire point if we don't see the striking contrast between his friends waiting on him and where he was now sitting, a parable of the contrast blacks have experienced for most of American history and of white privilege. Focus, focus, don't get distracted by the shiny ball of diversion.

So I think those who idolize Reagan have overreacted. True, no explanation was made of Reagan's stubborn refusal to impose sanctions on South Africa. But I think the movie accurately portrayed the way that doggedness was experienced by many Americans at the time, no doubt including some African-Americans.

Susan Moore said...

Oh. So I guess for historical reasons I need to look at the Old Testament. There I see Rahab, the prostitute who risked her own life to hide our spies. Although Rahab and her family were spared because of her faith, our people destroyed the rest of her city and every living thing in it. But that was back then. Nowadays God calls us to be His ambassadors of reconciliation; to 'destroy' our enemies by loving them and leading them to grace through faith in Christ. All of them. We are to regard no one from a worldly point of view (2 Cor. 5:16-21). Our reconciliation is quite different than the world’s deceptive way of appearing to reconcile by employing (exploiting) the token black person, or token foreigner, or token female...
We can love others like that only by grace through faith found in the forgiveness of the resurrected Christ, who remains the way, the truth and the life; and only by the Spirit after He has helped us yank the planks out of our own eyes.