by Acasia Olson
I saw “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” this week. In fact, it was the day after the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the March on Washington. I imagine Lee Daniel’s had this in mind when he set out to develop and produce and release this masterpiece. The film follows the life of Cecil Gaines, a black domestic from Macon, GA who is eventually invited to work as a White House Butler. The all-star cast includes Forrest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, Jane Fonda, John Cusack, Robin Williams and Cuba Gooding Jr. One expects nothing shy of excellence from this production, and it delivers just that, if not more.
This movie delivers the “Black experience” in 2 hours. Daniels takes the viewer from the cotton fields of Macon, GA circa 1920 through the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, the Black Power Movement of the ‘70s up to the 2008 election of the Nation’s first African American and 44th President, Barack Obama. There are funny moments, which seem to come from Cecil Gaines’ younger son (who has a penchant for good natured humor) after a tense family dinner that involves his older brother, his brother’s lady friend, and his father. There are heartbreaking moments such as the case when Cecil witnesses his father’s death after his father attempts to stand up against the man who raped his mother. There are the frustrating moments that come as the result of the tension between black domestics (e.g. Cecil and other White House Staff), and the soldiers of the civil rights and black power movements (e.g. Cecil’s son and peers) who choose between serving and fighting, smiling and resisting. I found myself sitting in the back of the theater shaking my head, giving little ‘church grunts’ during key scenes, wiping away my tears in moments of joy and pain. I was there, and I was grateful to celebrate the history and heritage and legacy of my people over the course of those two hours. I felt the double-consciousness that Cecil came to experience after he was invited to the White House State Dinner. Here he was, a White House butler seated among dignitaries, decision makers and celebrities and though he and his wife had experienced a monumental event, he still didn’t feel as if he belonged, but instead felt as if he were a spectator or there for show.
As with any great movie, there are also the “aha” moments.
For me, these moments came after countless tears and efforts to subdue the discomfort that emerges when racial injustices are relived through the arts and seen in our modern society. I was moved towards the end of the film after Cecil and his oldest son Louis reconcile their differences and work to reestablish a father-son relationship. Cecil comes to realize that his son was not waging a war against the nation but was actually, in many ways, fighting for the heart, soul and future of the nation.
In public health, we talk about protecting and promoting the well-being and health of the public. Be it the global or local public, the country or the household, our goal in public health is to prevent disease, promote healthy lifestyles, and protect against the risks of disease. Epidemiology, the study of the distribution and control of disease in a population, is the cornerstone of public health. We use this discipline to help identify and explain how and why outbreaks and chronic disease enter into a population.
As a public health professional, I apply the principles of epidemiology to help identify the factors that contribute to the presence of diseases. I never stop asking the age old question, “why?” Why is this disease more common, more prevalent in this zip code, among this race, this age, this gender, etc? I ask how and why some diseases plague some groups and not others. “What makes this disease more endemic to this group than that group? What are the social determinants or factors that influence a person’s ability to make a healthy decision?” I am always inquisitive and dig until I can get to the root cause(s) of the problem, or some reasonable answer and solution that can be applied to multiple problems.
When I was in the world of HIV/AIDS a guest from the National Association of People Living with AIDS (NAPWA) spoke to my graduate class about HIV/AIDS and organizational approaches to addressing and preventing its spread. He said something that I’ll never forget, “HIV is the symptom of a larger problem.” That statement rang out like a gong. “What is the larger problem and how can we get to it?” I asked myself. In this past year, I have come to learn more than ever that institutional racism is the glue that holds many forms of oppression together and it feeds and fuels many ills in society. Not just racism but power inequities and prejudice, which I would argue are the key components of racism. But let’s go further. Racism is not a matter of meanness but merely a disease that affects and infects many. It’s so pervasive that many people don’t realize how they’ve been affected or infected by it. It’s a disease of the body, mind, and soul and a lot of us are walking around like zombies, infected with it but not even aware. Some of us are aware and don’t care to change and some of us don’t want to know if we have it.
After watching “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” I realized that my job is to heal and fight for the soul of this nation and everyone infected by the sickness of racism. There’s a reason why my life is taking this direction. I had no idea that when I set out to find the cure for HIV that I would find myself staring racism and inequity in the face. Now that I am I feel and sense things are coming together in a unique fashion. What I enjoyed most about the film is that it portrayed African Americans not as archetypes and characters but as real people and humans with real joys and pains, not all of which are necessarily tied to race or injustice. It is the American story, and if we could find a way to connect with one another within and despite our differences, then we’ll be able to begin the healing process.