Lee Daniel’s The Butler

Darkness cannot drive our darkness.  Only light can do that
Martin Luther King, Jr.

 [box_dark]This movie discussion is intended to help you connect your Christian faith to the modern world by:

1.  Helping you learn to see echoes of redemptive truth all around you.

2. Challenging you to help other Christians see that their relationship with Jesus cannot be confined to church but must invade our every activity…even our movie-watching.

3. Equipping you to speak Christ into culture by pointing out entry points for significant discussions with non-believers.  Many non-believers won’t accept an invitation to come to church, but they will talk about a movie they’ve seen recently…so we want to help you turn that conversation into an eternally significant discussion.[/box_dark]

Lee Daniel’s movie, The Butler, follows the life of Cecil Gaines, butler to eight different presidents in the White House.  It’s a movie about his life.  It’s a movie about racism.  It’s a movie about the Civil Rights movement and politics and Vietnam and our history.  It’s a movie that covers all of these things, but perhaps more importantly, it’s a movie how we affect change.

My favorite scene captures the two primary opposing ideologies brilliantly.  Cecil is in the White House, serving the politicians and statesmen, all manner of important and wealthy people, all white.  His very bearing carries with it a suggestion of, “How can I serve you?”  Meanwhile, his son Louis and his friends are conducting a sit-in.  “We would like to be served, please.”  They were peaceful and respectful; nevertheless they demanded to be served.    Such a contrast to Cecil, who never demands to be served, rather he continually asks how he might serve.  How did Louis and his son end up approaching things so differently?  Which was more effective?  Let’s back up a little.

The movie begins with the young Cecil on a cotton farm with his loving mom and dad.  Despite harsh conditions, you see a lot of love and happiness – until the white master’s son takes Cecil’s mom into the shed (rape is implied).  Cecil is horrified at the injustice, and looks to his Dad; “Dad, aren’t you going to do something?”  When the white man comes back out, his Dad simply says, “Hey” and catches the white man’s attention.  That’s it.  He doesn’t say or do anything more, but the man shoots him dead on the spot.  Cecil lost his father that day, but he also lost his mother (who went crazy) for all practical purposes.  His desire to fight a wrong only caused more wrong.  This is the event that frames the way Cecil looks at the world.

Cecil ends up being trained to be a house slave, which turns into a job waiting tables at a hotel, which then leads to a recommendation for a job as a butler in the White House.  He is recommended for advancement over and over by those he serves, because he does so with such grace and integrity and excellence.  It’s a humble position, but one that well-positions him to be in a place of influence.  He becomes a trusted servant, a friend, “like family” even to the presidents, many of whom specifically requested that Cecil himself wait on them personally.

As happens so often in families, the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme with Cecil’s son, Louis.  Louis wanted to change things.  He didn’t like the way the black man was treated.  He wasn’t going to be some humble servant like his father.  He wasn’t going to ignore the injustices around him, the inequalities, wrongs and insults.  He wanted to DO something about it…contrary to his father who just kept on serving the white man without a protest.  He saw his father as lowly, a mere butler.  He was even embarrassed of his father, thinking that Cecil had somehow betrayed his own kind by kissing up to the white man.  So Louis joined the civil rights movement by going to sit-ins, riding the Freedom bus, and even joining the Black Panthers for a time.

Louis didn’t understand his dad.  He mistook his dad’s quiet for indifference, his respect for agreement.  He didn’t understand why his Dad was so against violence.  He didn’t know what his father saw as a boy, nor the guilt his father probably had for encouraging his dad to “do something”.  He hadn’t had to live with consequences that were far more devastating than the original offense.  Not only did Louis not understand the forces that created Cecil’s perspective and response to the world, but he also didn’t understand the power that his dad really had.  He saw his dad as weak and subservient.  He didn’t see the power it took to control his tongue and his temper.  He didn’t see the power it took to respond with grace even when offended.  He didn’t see how much strength of character was required for Cecil to love and serve what many said were his enemies.  Louis just saw weakness and shame.

Louis joined some activist groups in college.  It started out with a desire to change the world peacefully, through love.  But then, when peaceful demonstrations (like sit-ins) were met with hostility, things began to change.  He began to demand his rights and grow bitter.  Cecil asks him, “What’s so special about another colored man, jaded?”  There were enough of those already.  Charlie, his little brother even saw it.  “You fight your country.  I want to fight FOR my country.”  Louis had subtly changed from fighting for civil rights and hope and peace, to fighting everyone, even those who were on his side, like his father.  He began to see everyone as his enemy.  Where his father saw hope, like with Sidney Poitier “breaking down barriers” and winning an Oscar, Louis saw a “white man’s puppet”.

The differences grew even stronger as time progressed, but they could be seen clearly in that one scene at the sit-in and the white-house:  Louis asking to be served, his father asking to serve.  Both men wanted to affect change.  Each man felt the other’s method was ineffective (at best).

John F. Kennedy told Cecil, “You know, I never really understood what you all went through until I saw [the Freedom bus riot].  My brother said these kids have, uh…, have changed his mind.  They’ve changed mine too.”  JFK saying that changed Cecil’s as well.  He began to realize the courage and conviction it took for his son to risk his life over and over again.  He also saw that sometimes the world needs to be forced to see a thing before they believe it exists.  That’s what his son and others did in protests like the sit-ins and Freedom bus.  Cecil’s heart toward Louis began to change when he saw that Louis’ actions didn’t just stir up more hatred and violence and loss, but that they were opening the world’s eyes, and things were changing because of it.

Cecil isn’t the only one to change though.  In fact, Louis is the one who really changes directions.  Louis’ Civil Rights involvement took a drastic turn when he got involved with the Black Panthers and realized that he wasn’t at all on board with their violent means.  He suddenly realized just how far he had traveled down that path, and began to change.  He ended up going into politics, trying to change the system as a part of it, rather than fighting against it.  He wanted to change it as an ally, verses treating it as an enemy, and making himself an enemy in the process.  Ultimately, he ends up far more like his father in ideology and practice.

Cecil proves Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quote to be true.  “The black domestic defies racial stereotyping by being hardworking and trustworthy…having a strong worth ethic and dignified character. …Though subservient, they are subversive without even knowing it.”  His dignity, character, work ethic and general manner of being were so winsome he became trusted by the leaders of the world.  Nancy Reagan points out, “You’re the man that got [the black help] raises and promotions.”  Just as Ghandi did, Cecil too “illustrated that a man can pull himself out of segregation with patience, persistence, intelligence, discipline and a little bit of a sense of humor.”

The movie does a great job of showing the real power of service and humility.  It just falls short of telling us where those ideas really came from.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was not the founder of these ideas.  They are much older than that.  Jesus was the first one to really live and espouse these ideas.  He was the one who surprised his followers by saying that he didn’t come to be served, but to serve (even though He was King).  He told others that to become the greatest, they must be willing to become the least, and said that the last would be first.  He challenged people that in order to gain their life, they had to lose it.  He said things like: Love your enemies.  Bless those who persecute you.  Turn the other cheek.  If someone asks you to go one mile, go two.  Everything Jesus taught was about living a life of love, humility and service to one another.

Jesus went so far in his life of love as to lay his own life down for the good of others, even the good of his murderers.  He was persecuted, but he didn’t complain.  As God, He could have ended his own suffering.  He could have defended himself and punished those who wronged him, but He didn’t.  As MLK , Jr. said, “though subservient, [Jesus was] subversive.”  He died with criminals, penniless, without any “accomplishment” to his name, but He defeated sin and death on that cross, and He started a movement that changed the world.

Interestingly enough, Jesus’ disciples were a bit like Louis.  They didn’t understand Jesus’ ideas about changing the world through service, love and sacrifice at first.  They wanted Jesus to take command by force.  In the end however, just like Louis, they too came around.  They all suffered persecution (many even death) with quiet humility, choosing to love and serve those who persecuted them.

It may be that God uses people who stand up for themselves to effect change.  It may be that some good does come out of someone demanding their rights and demanding to be served.  The BEST and MOST good, however, will always come when we follow Jesus’ model and choose to serve, rather than demanding to be served.  What about our rights?  Well, we have to let go of that, and admittedly, that can be hard—but it’s not a total loss.  God is our defender, and His glory is our rear guard—translation:  God has got our back.  So set your rights and your pride aside and choose to follow Jesus who was the servant of all.

Questions for Discussion: 

  • Do you agree with Cecil’s passive approach to the wrongs he saw in the world?  Why or why not?
  • Do you agree with Louis’ move active approach to the wrongs he saw in the world?  Why or why not?
  • Why do you think it was so hard for Cecil and Louis to see each other’s perspective?
  • Why do you think the servant approach is so effective?
  • What are the areas that you are tempted to stand up for yourself and claim your rights?  How can you take the position of a servant in that situation instead?  How might that change the situation?
  • How do you feel about the Butler and the way he served, and the impact he had?
  • How do you feel about Jesus, the way HE served and the impact HE had?
  • Why do you think Jesus was willing to bless those who killed him?  Why was He willing to die, when He could have gotten himself off that cross and ended the pain at any moment?

Click here to read a collection of quotes from Lee Daniel’s The Butler.

By Stacey Tuttle