The little boy watched his mother’s madness and his father’s murder. An old white woman takes him from her cotton field into her Macon, Georgia home and trained him to be a butler. He was taught to serve quietly, while his presence and personhood was to be invisible. When he came of age, he decided to leave Georgia and join the Great Migration north. He sets out on his journey while the movie’s soundtrack sings a gospel song of determination.
This emotionally powerful movie, rich with pathos and humor, with friendship and fun, with temptation, violence, and love, is about a butler’s determination to support his family so that his wife would not have to work outside her home, so that his sons would never have to look upon a cotton field. The movie is about the butler’s determination to live a life of dignity and purpose during the turbulent years of the civil rights and human rights movements. It is also about a generational conflict, primarily between father and son, when a determination to sustain clashes with a determination for change.
Determination is a decision, and it is also the result of a decision. It is resolve. It is a steel-strong intention to complete a journey, to reach a goal, to climb up the rough side of a mountain or to tunnel through it. Determination is the mustard seed of faith that moves mountains. Determination is an assessment of a situation. Determination is a made up mind and a persistent will to keep on keeping on until a positive change has come. Determination is driven by a powerful moral imperative. Determination is a stubborn rock-solid love.
In the conflict of determinations between father and son, Lee Daniels gives us a view of history both from inside the White House and from the streets. We hear the various presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan discussing civil rights and human rights policy in front of Cecil Gaines, the butler, who does not allow his own opinions on the subject to show. What he has is a mighty determination to do his job well.
At the same time, his son, Louis, is active in the civil rights movement. We see him and his colleagues facing racist physical abuse as they sit-in to desegregate lunch counters; face violence and jail during the freedom rides as whites and blacks sit together on buses in the south; face dogs and fire hoses in the streets of Birmingham, Alabama; and face police brutality on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on bloody Sunday.
In church where the civil rights workers sing freedom song, we see the statement ‘God is Love’ in lights. The workers sing of a determination to do the best they can to help their fellow man. The question we ask is: Does the determination of the presidents in the White House match the determination of the civil rights workers? Perhaps, perhaps not, and toward what end?
And there is the determination of love. Cecil’s determination to leave Georgia was an example of love of self. His willingness to be a good butler, to serve well, was an expression of love for himself and for his family. His son Louis’ determination to continue the struggle for justice was an act of love. His younger son Charlie’s decision to volunteer to fight in the Vietnam War was an act of love. We see the love between Cecil and his wife Gloria that was its own righteous determination and presence of God.
There is a song that sings: “Everything must change. The young becomes the old, and mysteries do unfold.” In this movie, we see Cecil Gaines grow from young to old. He is an old man when Barack Obama is elected president. We see history unfold. And the lesson that Lee Daniels teaches in this movie is with love and faith and determination we can serve the world both in purposeful activism and in our ordinary, everyday, work. We can make inevitable change become change for a world of more justice and more peace.