Lee Daniels’ The Butler: a love story weaving civil rights events with family dynamics. The Butler is inspired by the life of Eugene Allen, an individual who worked at the White House from 1952, at the end of President Truman’s term, through 1986, when he retired as head butler and Ronald Reagan was president. The movie ends with a sequence involving the election of President Obama. The film intersects White House scenes with what is happening in the USA by having the butler, Cecil Gaines, overhear political discussions and then having his oldest son, Louis Gaines, being involved in the civil rights actions. Louis attends Fisk University and becomes part of the first lunch counter sit-in at a Woolworths. He then becomes a Freedom Bus rider, a Black Panther and present at the Lorraine Motel when Dr. King is assassinated. Danny Strong’s script, by intertwining Presidential behavior with the butler’s physical reactions as he is hearing of events he knows his son is a participant while also presenting working class family life, should result in his receiving an Oscar nomination. Because so much American history is being covered within 130 minutes of movie time, the characters, with the notable exceptions of the butler, his wife and their two sons, are not given a lot of depth. It is a tribute to Strong’s writing skills that you care about the central characters while being both entertained and reminded as to just how much has occurred in this country during the life time of a single man.
However, this film is not a biography. At the end of this review variants between the movie character Cecil Gaines and Allen’s life are outlined.Forest Whitaker gives another Oscar nominating performance as Cecil Gaines, the butler. During the course of the movie, Whitaker goes from a young man in his late ‘30s to an individual approximately 90 years old. The aging is more body movement than makeup. Whitaker is a remarkable actor and this role allows him to show a range of emotion and not just that he can play old. Cecil’s wife, Gloria, is played by Oprah Winfrey and her performance is also praiseworthy. In her 15 years away from the movie screen, she has not lost any of her acting talent. This film is loaded with big name stars. In the opening sequence on a cotton planation in Georgia, Miriah Carey plays Cecil’s mother, Hattie Pearl, and she does not say a word. Daniel Banner plays the father. We then have Vanessa Redgrave appear as Annabeth Westfall, the owner of the planation. The movie has Cecil starting his career at the White House under Dwight Eisenhower. Robin Williams plays Eisenhower and there are no comic lines in the performance. John Kennedy is played by James Marsden followed by Liev Schreiber as LBJ. Liev is given some of the few comic scenes. John Cusack plays Nixon and his performance is a stereotype characterization. Ford and Carter are only shown in news videos. In real life, Ford and Allen had the same birthday. The President who I thought came across as the most human was Reagan, played by Alan Rickman. Interesting selection having Jane Fonda play Nancy Reagan. Her short screen presence was nicely done. Also deserving special praise is David Oyelowo's performance as Louis. The film is not all seriousness and LBJ doesn’t have the only comic lines. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Carter Wilson, another butler at the White House, and he brings lightness to the screen whenever he is on camera. Two other stars are Terrence Howard, a neighbor to Cecil and Gloria, and Lenny Kravitz as James Holloway, the individual who oversaw the daily running of the White House. Daniels shows his breath as a director as this is a very different film from the ones that made his reputation (Precious and Shadowboxer). But the real reason this film works and is more than a telling of historical events is the interplay between Whitaker and Oprah. As they age on screen, the depth of the relationship also grows. Daniels skill is in using the butler, an “invisible man” when doing his job correctly, to present with positive force a family and a country coping with the struggle for equal rights to all its citizens. This is a film worth seeing.
As to why this is a film “inspired” by Allen’s life and not a biography. Allen was born in Virginia in 1919, not Georgia. He was a planation “houseboy” and there is no evidence of the movie opening scenes being part of Allen’s life. He met his wife at a birthday party, not at work. She called him for the first date. They had only one son, not two. The son, Charles, served in Vietnam and is still alive. While Allen apparently was present when Eisenhower spoke with his advisors as to sending troops to Little Rock, it did not happen on his first day at the White House. He had already been there a few years having started with Truman as a pantry hire, not a butler. The tie incident in the movie is partly true, Jackie Kennedy did give Allen a tie worn by JFK after JFK was killed. Allen framed the tie and never wore it. Also true is the Reagan invitation for him and his wife to attend a White House dinner involving the West German Chancellor. Allen and his wife were married for 65 years and she died a few days prior to President Obama’s election. Allen had a VIP invitation and attended the swearing in ceremony with a Marine guard escort. There is no evidence as to Allen, who died at 90 in 2010, ever having personally met President Obama.