The Butler doesn’t extend beyond the “progressive narrative” of American history. In this narrative, racism is pervasive−the major theme of our national experience.
In our actual past, racism has always had to contend with the better angels of our nature. Martin Luther King, Jr.was pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and the power of his rhetoric is inseparable from the depth of his faith that racism is contrary to God’s will and thus doomed. When he said “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children,” he was not merely fashioning a trope. He was speaking truth, and he knew it was the white majority that he had to persuade and that most of them favored neither cruelty nor oppression.
Martin Luther King is present in The Butler, but the Christian tenor of his rhetoric is faint. He does defend the butler’s role to his son, who believes that angry political activism is the way to make progress. The King character points out that the domestic servant’s exemplification of service, effort, and restraint powerfully undermines racial stereotypes. He does not look down on the butler, as his son is wont to do.
It was Martin Luther King’s modeling of nonviolent and peaceful reconciliation that prepared the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act. “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” he said. Such teaching was of a piece with his faith and hope: “When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”
This was not Malcolm X’s message. which had more to do with anger and with victory than with love or transcendence: “Time is on the side of the oppressed today, it’s against the oppressor. Truth is on the side of the oppressed today, it’s against the oppressor.” This derives from Marx. It’s the language of revolutionary ideology, dividing humanity into the classes of oppressor and oppressed. It’s the song of hatred and bitterness that King warned against.
In the actual past, it was King’s message of peace and brotherhood that prepared America to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, both of which were motivated by a vision of national unity. The political activism of Malcolm X was more useful for building a revolutionary army than for bringing a nation together. People had to choose between the two paths then just as they must now. The film, unfortunately, does not make the choice clear.
In Genesis, Joseph serves as a type of Christ. Sold into slavery, he served Pharaoh meticulously, in spite of his status as a despised minority. His patience and obedience in spite of brutal treatment positioned him to save the tribes of Israel and to ameliorate the harsh realities of this world. He foreshadowed what the Savior had to teach about oppression and brotherhood. He modeled the Christian way, which King profoundly understood.
The film generally leans a different way. In the end, the butler leaves his job at the White House and joins an angry protest movement−against Reagan, of all things. Reagan is presented, absurdly, as opposed to racial equality. This is done through cursory references to Apartheid in South Africa. The film uses the strained expedient of twisting Reagan’s opposition to communism into antagonism towards racial justice, ignoring the actual past, in which South Africa was infected with the same revolutionary ideology that moved Malcolm X.
In the film, enlightenment leads to street politics, serving up a vision of political activism as much of the meaning of goodness. The election of Barack Obama is presented as the apotheosis of our yearning for justice. Such is the progressive vision.