lee daniels’ the butler: some reflections

the butler

Written by Sandra Heska King

PRAY EDITOR "Once a nurse, always a nurse," they say. But now I spend my days with laptop and camera in tow as I look for the extraordinary in the ordinary. I'm a Michigan gal, mom to two, grandmom to two, and wife to one. My husband and I live on 50 acres in the same 150-plus-year-old farmhouse he grew up in. I love this quote by Mary Oliver, "Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it." That's how I want to live. And I'm still learning how to be. Still.

August 27, 2013

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. 



  1. Lynn Mosher

    Don’t care to see this one, for a couple of reasons.

    • Sandra Heska King

      Hmmm. You know, Lynn, I hadn’t even heard about the movie until Deidra wrote about it. I’m not sure what you’re getting at here. I did take issue with some of the historical inaccuracies as well as with what I thought might be a haze of propaganda. But I got lost in the story and caught up in the reality of the horror and injustice, and it’s really gotten me thinking from another’s perspective.

      Love you, friend.

      • Lynn Mosher

        Oh, I agree that it should make us think. I hate injustice. Just some personal issues with the story inaccuracies and those chosen to play the parts.

  2. Kris Camealy

    I’m wanting to see this movie, though I am sure it will be difficult to watch–thank you for this, Sandy.

    • Sandra Heska King

      It’s heavy stuff, Kris. But there are some moments of comic relief. 🙂

  3. pastordt

    This was a powerful story, generally told well, and I’m grateful to have seen it. The ‘liberties’ taken with history were not so much with the history of it all, as such, but with the characters lives in the midst of that history. And some of that was a bit over the top (really? the son was in all those groups?), but overall, I thought it was a fine film and one we need to see and talk about respectfully. Thanks for writing about it here, Sandy.

    • Sandra Heska King

      I’m glad I saw it, too. And I’d watch it again. I think it makes a difference if we can look at it as a fiction story set with in an historical backdrop , remembering that it was inspired by, not necessarily based on, the life of one man.

      I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that so many of these atrocities happened in my lifetime, but all I had to do to make it stop was turn off the TV.

      I often wonder if my parents moved north because, as they said, they always wanted to own cottages–or if it was some sort of an escape. I say that based on a couple of comments my dad has made. I should probably ask him to talk about his experiences–though these days he always thinks I have a hidden agenda, and maybe I do. 😉 I will say he’s often said he’d like to see Condoleezza Rice in the White House. 🙂 (Actually, he wanted her and Sarah Palin on the same ticket.)

  4. DeanneMoore

    Saw it tonight. Still thinking about all of it and thankful to see it in the city of one of the scenes in the movie as part of a diverse audience and know that things are so different than they were in 1957. I was wondering if someone has written a biography of Eugene Allen’s life?? I would like to read the “non-ficitionalized” story.


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lee daniels’ the butler: some reflections

by Sandra Heska King time to read: 4 min