the butler

My parents moved from the Detroit area to buy four small rustic cabins on a lake in northern lower Michigan and later built a six-room motel. Our little house’s screened-in porch (that I painted chartreuse when my folks were away) served as the office. I can still see the keys hanging on the wall.

My memory of the night is hazy, but I remember my father went out to the car and spoke to the driver. Then the car left and drove on north in the dark. It may have stopped at the next-door cabins, but I don’t remember that.

Afterwards, my dad changed the sign to “no vacancy,” though we had empty rooms. I think there was a sense of sadness more than anger or fear, but I can’t be sure.

It was in the late 1950s.

I remembered this incident in a darkened movie theater Saturday as I watched Lee Daniels’ The ButlerI strained to remember news of the Detroit riots of the ’60s, and when I read a little about them today, I was a little taken aback by the account of Detroit officers killing three young African-American men in a motel room during the 1967 riot. That was the year I graduated from high school.

Have you seen the movie? If not, you might want to stop reading here and come back later.




The movie opens with a quote by Martin Luther King, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.”

It’s a fictionalized story inspired by the real life of Eugene Allen who served in the White House for more than thirty years through eight administrations.

The movie flashes back to a cotton field in 1926 where young Cecil Gaines hears his mother’s screams when the white plantation owner rapes her. When his father quietly protests with a single word (at Cecil’s urging), the owner shoots Cecil’s father dead in front of him. The farm’s matriarch then takes Cecil into the house and tells him he will now be a house slave.

Eventually, he leaves the farm, continues to serve whites, and ultimately ends up in the White House.

“You hear nothing. You see nothing. You only serve,” he’s told. “The room should feel empty when you’re in it.”

I’m struck by how God can use the ragged threads of our past to pull us up to heights we never dreamed of.

Cecil serves humbly and faithfully for many years despite the pain his heart hides. We see him polishing shoes and silver. He serves cookies to schoolchildren, meals to heads of state, and medicines to presidents. We see the different faces he shows to the public, in the kitchen, and at home.

The movie reveals the  history of the civil rights movement through Cecil’s eyes. During these years, his wife turns to alcohol. His younger boy dies in the war. Louis, the the eldest, becomes a Freedom Rider and eventually joins the Black Panthers. Much of the story revolves around the relationship between father and son, the one who openly fights for change while the other, a “subservient worker” as Dr. King tells Louis, may be “subversive,” through his invisibility  without even knowing it, quietly breaking down fences.

At one point, when Louis brings his girlfriend home, an argument arises over Sidney Poitier, and Louis disrespects Cecil’s position as a butler, calls him “Mr. Butler.” His mother slaps his face and reminds him that “everything you are, everything you have, is because of that butler.”

In the end, father and son reconcile, throw their arms around each other. “I don’t think God meant for people not to have a family,” Cecil tells Louis.

Love and family and sacrifice and humility transcend.

This story touched me deep, powerfully. It placed me in the events of the time by causing me to fall in love with the Gaines family. It was often hard to watch, but it’s given me more of an understanding of the African-American trail of tears. I just can’t fathom the hate and the violence. I’m still trying to process it all.

And it strikes me that the night we turned a car away, the real butler, Eugene, was already at work in the White House.

I need to see the movie again, but the more I think about it, the more spiritual parallels I see.

And I think yes, “everything we are, everything we have, is because of that Butler.”

How about you? Have you seen the movie? If so, how did you react? What did you take away? Were there any quotes that spoke to you?   Deidra asks similar questions of some Google Hangout participants as they share their thoughts. 


lee daniels’ the butler: some reflections

by Sandra Heska King time to read: 4 min