Four Lessons on Family from Lee Daniel’s The Butler

I am still in awe of the masterful way in which the story of the 20th Century African-American family experience was portrayed in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. And even though we are now well into the 21st Century, there are still applicable lessons on life and family that can be learned from the film.
1. Generational curses can be overcome.
In modern society, a young child who watches his mother denigrated and brutally raped, his father ruthlessly murdered for standing up for her, and his community of support stand by in fear (or apathy) as his life falls apart would be expected to live a dejected life in oppositional defiance to the rules and regulations of the society that dealt him this bad hand in life. In the life of Cecil Gaines, the very system that caused his dysfunction also saved his life. He had learned from his father to take pride in a job well done, even if it was something as simple as knowing the right time to harvest the cotton plants. Using the skill of serving he learned in “the big house,” Cecil turned his tragedy into success and didn’t use the experience as fuel for anger or self pity.2. Be careful what you wish for.
At the end of The Temptations Movie, Smokey Robinson sings these words at Blue’s grave side funeral service, “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.” Gloria Gaines loved being a home maker. She loved having a hard working man that supported his family, had a good reputation and was well respected in the community. She even comments that her “mama would be so proud” of her for having married a man like Cecil. And she built him up with the love, honor and respect a husband desires from his wife. The saying that hard work is it’s own reward was not lost on Cecil Gaines. He drew pride from a job well done, and eventually earned the esteem of being the preferred person to personally serve the President. But as he gained acclaim and respect on the job, he began to work more and more, leaving his wife home alone. This made Gloria bitter and lonely, resenting the very thing that once made her proud. She began to seek out the affection, attention and presence she desired from her husband elsewhere – parties, alcohol, other men. Thankfully, Cecil realized that his dedication to his employment was taking a toll on his wife and marriage and made some changes, without impacting his status on the job.

3. Honor thy father and thy mother.
As a Tulane University School of Engineering graduate, my first corporate salary was nearly what my parents made having been in academia for many years. In some ways, that gave me a sense of superiority over my parents. But in their presence, the reminder that “they brought me into this world and they would take me out” was an ever present reality, and I never expressed any of these feelings. And then one day, when I thought I was grown and equal to my parents, I came out the mouth wrong to my dad, and my mother hauled off and smacked me. My grandmother sat there, tight lipped, with an icy glare, as if to say “If she hadn’t done it, I would’ve.” Similarly, Louis, the eldest son of Cecil and Gloria, began to develop and sense of superiority over his parents. He was learning things they’d never learned, going places they’d never been and doing things they’d never done. He allowed his personal achievements to overshadow the hard work and selflessness of his parents that afforded him those opportunities. Louis had benefited from the life his parents built for him, but failed to see that his father’s line of work did not define his character, nor his ability to provide his family with a good life. So when he overstepped the boundaries of respect that his father demanded, he too, came out the mouth wrong to his father, and got smacked across the face by his mother, sending a loud and clear message that “everything he had was because of that butler,” and dishonor and disrespect would not be tolerated.

4. Being proud can build up. Being prideful can tear down.
Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. Proverbs 16:18

Haven’t we all heard this scripture referenced in one way or another at some point in our lives? It can be found in the book of Proverbs among several others highlighting the behavioral contrast between wisdom and folly. Wisdom does this and folly does that. Pride goes here and humility stays there. I struggled with this notion that being proud is evil. Can’t I be proud of my children’s achievements, my husband’s success or my own accomplishments without being evil or foolish? Yes, I can, as long as my behavior doesn’t slip from being proud to being prideful. And there is a fine line between the two. The word proud has multiple definitions, demonstrating the slippery slope from good to evil.
1. proud – feeling deep pleasure or satisfaction as a result of one’s own achievements, qualities, or possessions or those of someone with whom one is closely associated. (The Free Online Dictionary)
2. proud – having too high an opinion of oneself (Merriam Webster Online Dictionary)
3. prideful – having or displaying feelings of scorn for what is regarded as beneath oneself (Merriam Webster Online Dictionary)

Pride can move from a great sense of accomplishment to a feeling of arrogance and too high a sense of self, and then slip into feelings of superiority and disdain for those who don’t meet a certain standard. Cecil Gaines was a proud man, very pleased with his achievements and the life that made possible for his family. His eldest son Louis on the other hand was prideful; embarrassed by the reasons his father was revered and respected. This made for a contentious relationship between them, one that is all too common among father and son. The intrinsic male need for respect can cause one’s pride to rise up against anyone who stands in the way of it, even family. As Louis began to come into his own and fight for a better life the way he saw fit, he began to take pride in his effort and accomplishments. In Cecil’s mind this brought shame to his family, a very public shame that he was forced to face everyday at the hands of those whom he served. This began to make Cecil prideful, and eventually he grew to resent Louis and his actions. Cecil and Gloria missed out on many milestones and achievements in Cecil’s life because of this pride. Gloria began to communicate and reach out to Louis in private, as not to upset her husband and cause friction in her home. Pride was tearing their family apart – first by the son and now by the father. But once Cecil experienced life from the other side on the coin, being served by his peers at a very high profile and prominent event, he realized that the causes Louis stood behind were no reason to be ashamed. And in his old age Cecil realized the very thing that he held so dear, that which afforded him the life he’d built for his family, the hard work that garnered him so much acclaim and respect was causing him to lose the one thing he couldn’t earn – his family.

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