Lee-Daniels-The-Butler-Forest-Whitaker-David-OyelowoHistorical movies are, for the most part,  a movie first and history second. A historical film sometimes offers the viewer a broad stroke of a place and time presenting a character study, showing how choices people make affect humanity.

Clearly, the protagonist of The Butler is the civil rights movement. As the film unfolds, we are witness to one man’s journey from the cotton fields in the deep south to a respected, yet never fully recognized domestic servant at The White House. That’s all well and good, and it was a very good film with strong characters, and inspired performances…..but there is more. The film struck me as a through provoking examination of polarity.

At first glance one might see the confrontations between father and son (Cecil Gaines, the White House Butler and his son Louis Gaines, civil rights proponent and would-be-radical) as a conflict pitting one generation against the other. It’s my belief there is more going on with respect to the process of justice, how polarity fuels change.

Cecil had worked his way up from nothing, escaping the confines of tenant slavery continuing to flourish in the deep south of the 1920s. Now married with two sons, and living and working at the White House, providing for his family, and giving his family more than he had ever imagined. Cecil’s son heads off to college in the 1960s seeking out the Civil Rights movement becoming heavily involved with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After King is assassinated Louis aligns with the Black Panther party causing so much strain between father and son that almost all communication comes to an end.

Both father and son clearly had the same goals: living as full citizens of the nation, seeking to live their lives in equality, with all aspects of human dignity. Both father and son processed a strong work ethic with Cecil striving to be recognized as a valued domestic servant, and his son Louis gaining his Master’s Degree in Political Science. They are very much alike, but see the world from different polar viewpoints.

More importantly, the film shows the importance of polarity. Motion toward any cause or goal must have opposite ends held in tension with the other in order to spark any kind of movement or motion. A stalemate, when one side of the polarity tries to dominate the other, leads to aggression, and stagnation. Benign tension held in harmony leads to resolution.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said exactly fifty years ago, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”