Lee Daniels’ ‘The Butler’ is a parable of redemptive suffering

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By Fran Salone-Pelletier, Religion Columnist

From the opening line, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can,” I was riveted by the cinematic story unfolding before me, Lee Daniels’ ‘The Butler.’ I had read that it was inspired by the real-life account of Eugene Allen who worked for the White House for 34 years until his retirement as head butler in 1986. Knowing that Hubby Dear is especially interested in movies based on historical figures and events, I suggested a Saturday morning date. It proved to be a tearfully beautiful experience.
The story engaged us from the outset with the poignancy of a slave’s segregated life in the 20th century Deep South. It also challenged us with the reality that much atrocity continues, however muted and subtle. We still live in a world of exclusivity. Separated by color or creed or code of conduct, sometimes by all of them at the same time, our sense of community remains a surface reality, an idea yet to become our ideal.
Cecil Gaines, the butler in the movie account, deeply felt that exclusivity from the moment his mother was called into “service” by an evil “boss man,” and his father was murdered on the spot for standing up to face the immorality. He felt it strongly enough to know that he would one day have to leave his homeland, the place where his discomfort outweighed any solace he found in daily routine. He was scared to leave the only world he knew, but even more terrified to stay. To remain was to live in fear knowing that he would always be thinking the worst. It would also mean that the worst would always be thought of him.
Gaines’ flight into uneasiness was, as well, a fight to be faithful to a life of dedication, of serving, of learning, of anticipating what others needed and wanted — and fulfilling those expectations. Endeavoring to achieve balance, his only choice was to cultivate two faces: the visage of his true self and the manifestation of pleasant invisibility he presented to the world. It was a balance in which he would and could survive.
To be an acceptable butler, Gaines was admonished more than advised: “The room should feel empty when you’re in it. Hear nothing. See nothing. Only serve.” For Gaines, the warning bell had sounded. He was to become nothing, no one, so that he could be someone. It was a way of life that offered possibilities: transformation or subversion, redemptive suffering or feigned martyrdom.
The movie became a cinema of life, a parable that described redemptive suffering. Gaines’ life, a model for one son and a challenge for the other, was a determined journey of patience, persistence, thought, discipline, and humor. Simply put, it demonstrated the best of nonviolent techniques. Though he might have appeared to some as a man who was unnecessarily submissive, one who allowed others to walk all over him, Gaines was truly strong.
His peacefulness was deep. It was the shalom of wholeness and holiness. It was far more pervasive than a desire not to make waves. It was the peace that empowered him to contend with surface storms, to ride out the hurricanes life brings, to face the terrors of the night. His serenity allowed him to speak truth to power — even as he served cookies to touring schoolchildren.
Gaines could not understand the forces that drove the Freedom Riders to confront the murderous attitude of segregationists. It was not his way. Yet, he also knew the truth of their devotion. His spirit identified with them because he knew the depth of the words he had heard at the White House. He believed “those who do nothing are inviting shame and bias.” So, he did something. He asked for justice. He lived with rejection until he could no longer live with it — or the sense that he was a token person. Then he acted courageously.
As his world continued to change during the tenures of the eight presidents he served, Gaines grew in a certitude his gentle presence belied. Although he felt he didn’t know where he belonged, the power of domestic presence became certain. This presence “slowly tears down stereotypes. It’s subversive without knowing it.”
Gaines’ world is ours, even today. We live in a universe of denial. We turn a blind eye to what we do to ourselves, to each other. We fear being champions of sacred rights. We are scared of what civil rights really mean to all of us. We avoid protests when the cause is unpopular, politically incorrect. We lose each other in our fear and never say we are sorry for the loss.
The movie ended. Silence filled the theater. I had a sense that the viewers, all of us, were speechless with tearful sorrow. Sadly, we filed out without words to share our dismay. In the bright light of the lobby, senses assaulted by the smell of popcorn luring us back to the “real world,” I gathered my courage and spoke with a lone, elderly African-American gentleman waiting for the return of his companions. I had previously noticed him sitting in the same theater a few rows ahead of us. My eyes filled with unshed tears. I looked at him and said, “It must have hard for you to watch that movie.” With incredible gentleness, he responded, “Yes, it was. I lived it. I remember those times.”
Our conversation continued as we found common ground, delicately I must admit. He spoke of dual water fountains, side-by-side but scarcely expressions of unity or family. He remembered scary moments, riots, and universal trepidation. He also wanted to believe that this was all in the past. Today was different.
I told him that I was sad. I was sad that it had happened, sad that it ever could happen, sad that it was still happening, however differently expressed. His family arrived. We exchanged greetings, all of us holding back tears, all of us making our attempts to heal hurts we had not personally inflicted. As we parted, with calls to “make this a blessed day,” we vowed aloud to work as we could to live together as members of the human family. We promised not to lose our humanity in the seas of inhumanity, not to put asunder what God has united. If our declarations cause us suffering — doubtlessly they will, the suffering can only be redemptive.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives, lead chaplain at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at grammistfran@gmail.com.