Robin Williams and Forest Whitaker star in a scene from the movie
Robin Williams and Forest Whitaker star in a scene from the movie “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. (CNS photo/Weinstein)

While it’s often referred to as “the civil rights movement,” the network that promoted the equal treatment of all human beings is actually a series of movements. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” which tells the story of a White House servant, fleshes out some of those complexities.

Forest Whitaker portrays Cecil Gaines — a character loosely based on Eugene Allen (1919-2010), who served as a butler in the White House from Truman to Reagan. Whitaker, who won an Academy Award for his role in “The Last King of Scotland,” plays the role of Cecil Gaines well.

The story begins with Gaines waiting to meet President Barack Obama shortly after the 2008 election. It then cuts back 90 years to a plantation scene where Gaines grew up.

One of the plantation owners calls Gaines’ mother over to a shed. He rapes her there, and all the workers hear it. When Gaines’ father expresses his discontent moments after the owner emerges from the shed, the plantation owner shoots him dead a few feet away from Gaines.

It’s a powerful, stomach turning scene that could have set the tone for the rest of the movie. It could have provided an insight into the psyche of a person raised on a plantation. But instead, as a viewer, I found myself focused on his mother, played by Mariah Carey. Was Gaines’ mother of mixed ethnic background? That must have been unusual back then. Was Gaines’ grandmother also raped?

You get the idea. I, for one, lost the plot. The casting — including other perplexing actors of mixed racial background— distracts from the plot and from Whitacker’s exceptional performance throughout. Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower isn’t on screen long enough for the “Oh man, that’s Robin Williams and he’s got a receding hairline!” to pass. John Cusak as Nixon — same thing. He’s always John Cusak and never Richard Nixon. In your eyes, the light the heat…

The worst is “show me the money” Cuba Gooding, Jr., whose role in the film seems to be to tell crass sexual jokes that alone turned me off the entire film. Did people tell such vulgar jokes back then? Gooding and musician Lenny Kravitz play butlers also serving at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Oprah Winfrey is dynamic as his alcoholic, unfaithful wife. She vanishes into her role unlike other big name actors in the film.  Gaines’ older son Louis, played by David Oyelowo, becomes involved with the civil rights movement. His approach conflicts with his father’s.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film is when Louis and his college friends sit at the lunch counters designated “white-only.” This was a way to non-violently protest for equal rights. ”We would like to be served.” The white restaurant owners won’t do it, but the college kids won’t budge.

People from the town come in and verbally and physically assault them. They spit on them and throw hot coffee in their face. Blessed are they, these non-violent civil rights protestors.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church denounces unjust discrimination. This has recently been emphasized by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted with respect to the treatment of our brothers and sisters who have same-sex attractions — but it applies to everyone:

“Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.” (Gaudium et Spes, 20 §2)

Martin Luther King, Jr., played by the lesser-known Nelsen Ellis, utters perhaps the most profound words in the film. When King asks Louis what his father does, Louis answers, “he’s a butler,” and is ashamed. King explains that such butlers, by their quiet, humble service break down barriers by shattering stereotypes.

In a way, it’s hard to say what the film is about. It’s tempting to say it’s about the fictional Cecil Gaines. But his story line is constantly assailed by the politics of the presidents’ he served. The film ascribes too much power to the president where civil rights victories were more of a grassroots initiative.

If it were simply about Gaines, it would have included how he met his wife, their wedding and when his children were born. These are definitive moments in a person’s life, and the film depicts none of them.

It could also be described as a story of two generations that struggled through racial inequality — Gaines and his eldest son. But we don’t really see what his son’s life was like as a child and we don’t see his son get married or have children himself.

So it seems the film is more of a meditation of sorts on the civil rights movement, or movements, and how they mutate through the decades. Different leaders take center-stage — from King to Jesse Jackson to, ultimately, Barack Obama, whose election, as Pope Benedict XVI noted at the time, was a “historic occasion.” Everything else aside, he is the first black man to serve as president of the United States of America.

It is understandable, if regrettable, that this civil rights flick is framed by the presidency of a man who has seemingly legislated against the Catholic Church in the United States. The Church has been fighting threats to religious liberty throughout this administration’s reign.

But what I find particularly troublesome is that, on the one hand, this movie portrays various strings of the civil rights movement, but at the same time ignores the greatest threat to civil rights today: abortion.

In the words of Martin Luther King’s niece Alveda King: “Where is the lawyer for the babies whose civil rights are violated by the act of abortion? How can the dream survive if we murder our children?”

President Obama consistently aligned himself with Planned Parenthood, whose founder believed in the superiority of lighter-skinned races. Minorities receive a disproportionate number of abortions. Abortion is an assault on our civil rights, it undercuts the dignity of the human person and it enables the objectification of women.

It’s hard to stomach.

While the United States can and did rejoice in the election of it’s first black president, it is impossible for me to accept it as the crowning achievement of civil rights efforts. Civil rights are about treating all humans equally. Our president doesn’t believe in equality when it comes to the unborn.

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“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (Weinstein)

The personal collides with the political in this affecting fact-based drama adapted by director Lee Daniels from a 2008 Washington Post article by reporter Wil Haygood. Escaping the vicious racism of the early 20th-century Deep South, a plantation worker (Forest Whitaker) makes his way to Washington, where he eventually finds coveted employment on the domestic staff of the White House. But his patient hope that white Americans — led by the series of presidents he works with at close hand, from Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) — will see the light on racial issues increasingly conflicts with the civil rights activism of his older son (David Oyelowo). And the long hours he puts in at the executive mansion leave his strong-willed but fragile wife (Oprah Winfrey) feeling neglected. Appealing performances, especially Winfrey’s complex portrayal, and a surprisingly nuanced view of the various chief executives — an irretrievably self-absorbed Richard Nixon (John Cusack) alone excepted — keep the unfolding events from feeling like a chronological checklist of postwar history. While vulgar language and other red-flag content would normally prevent recommendation for any but grown-ups, the moral significance of this uplifting journey — undertaken within a context of implicit religious faith and strong marital commitment — is such that at least some parents may consider it acceptable for older teens. Occasional action violence, an adultery theme, numerous mature references, a half-dozen uses of profanity, a couple of rough terms, some crude and crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

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J.D. Long-Garcia is the former editor of The Catholic Sun. He joined the staff in 2004. J.D., a lay Dominican, studied journalism and psychology at Arizona State University, philosophy at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, and theology at the Graduate Theological Union. He's taught classes at the Kino Institute, worked as an outreach intern at All Saints Catholic Newman Center, led a deanery confirmation program in Berkeley, Calif., and served as a catechist for children of various ages. He was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.