This movie comes two years after The Help, one after Lincoln, and in a long line of movies about the civil rights movement. The Butler also comes in the same year as several movies about slavery, service and imprisonment in one form or another. It’s an easy subject about which to emote, and an easy subject to treat with lazy derision and press all the right liberal buttons in developing a plot, and in doing so you can end up with talking heads voicing stereotypical opinions for the sake of light and shade.
You also know it is a top of keen political interest about civil rights when Oprah Winfrey gets involved, but is this particular attempt merely Roots meets Upstairs Downstairs meets The West Wing? Mark Kermode, writing in The Guardian, suggested more than a little Downton Abbey in this tale of the black butler to the US president at a time of social upheaval, the civil rights movement, wars and much more besides, though in practice it offers a very carefully tailored balance in order to avoiding offending anyone, other than those so extreme that mollifying them would be nigh on impossible.
The Butler, (prefixed for contractual reasons with the name of the director/producer “Lee Daniels‘” – which to me is silly, vain and unnecessary) is a drama of the White House years of Cecil (in the American style, pronounced “see-sill”) Gaines, based on but not sticking strictly to the letter of the experiences of real life White House butler Eugene Allen.
Actually, that is not a fair description since the movie is much more the experience of living through these times through the eyes of the family of Gaines (Forest Whitaker, of whom more shortly) and wife Gloria (Oprah), contrasting the devoutly apolitical butler with his politically charged elder son Louis (David Oyelowo) and younger son Charlie (Elijah Kelley), who is killed in Vietnam.
In this time we meet presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan (respectively Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack and Alan Rickman), skip through Ford and Carter, then skip entirely both Bushes and Clinton in order to arrive at the moment election of Obama to the White House, the moment the son of a slave killed by the overseer who raped his mother never thought he would ever see.
This is deliberately a movie on epic proportions with a star-studded cast you always knew would be seeking the attention of the Academy committee with a view to being voted for an array of gongs. In fairness the acting is exquisite, even when some characters are whisked under our noses then vanish almost immediately.
Whitaker is the focal point and pivot, which in view of his evident charisma in movies such as The Last King of Scotland was a wise casting decision. Here he is rarely out of quiet, understated mode. With this quality of actor you can obtain powerful results in this way, though his personal involvement in this debate is not far below the surface (see here.) One rant at his elder son apart, this being a building ramp of frustration, Whitaker’s Gaines keeps his views to himself, having learned that voicing opposition leads to tragic consequences. He also learns that to graduate from a “house nigger” to a butler requires discretion and personal sacrifice. His only form of rebellion is a noble request for he and his black colleagues to be recognised for their years of service with pay rises and promotions, which is dismissed summarily in spite of the support of presidents who ask for Gaines in person, and in the case of Nancy Reagan, invite he and his wife to a state dinner as guests, a reward for years of deferential service, discretion and a humility standing in direct contrast to the fear-driven servitude from slavery.
But nobility is not enough for some, to the extent that Gaines feels the burning inequity towards the home truths spoken by son Louis, particularly the boy dismisses Sidney Poitier, and by definition he too, as “a rich Uncle Tom.” In the time of emancipation, the rationale for the servile nature of his professional life is increasingly difficult to communicate.
As his counterpart, Oprah is interesting. Typically her acting roles make her a sassy mama, not least in The Color Purple, for which she was Oscar nominated. While she says Daniels (who also famously made the brilliant Precious) wanted her to play the role like a serial killer, she is mostly subdued and almost subservient to her husband. She kicks ass with her kids and with the neighbour over his advances, but Gloria is unquestionably a loyal and understanding partner to Gaines. I would not be surprised if she were again nominated.
Suffice it to say that most cameos are done well, though the fact that the same staff are working together for decades reminded me strongly of Shawshank Redemption. In that movie, there is an endpoint in the form of Andy Dufresne’s ironic escape and revenge. Here the point of the narrative is explained in the form of Obama’s election, but there is a fair amount of rambling along the way, recording the passage of time to no particular purpose.
The quality on view is undeniable, so surely the final product should lift the viewer and place them squarely in the cut and thrust of the debate. Even the civil rights protests and the burning of a bus by the KKK were a tad tame, which is appalling. Daniels does try to prick your tear ducts in the relationship between family members, notably the final reunion between father and son, and the death of Gloria, but both moments fail to deliver a real punch.
So it is with great sadness I have to conclude that I felt slightly underwhelmed by The Butler when I had expected to be supercharged by the sheer power of the narrative drive. This is a lost opportunity to deliver the definitive movie on the civil rights debate, albeit from a left-field perspective. Daniels it is who lost it, yet we know he can do better. Maybe trying to be politically correct was the big error, but maybe someday there will be a director’s cut which puts things to right, but as it is this is a Ferrari with the engine of a Ford Mondeo.
PS. An interesting view is posted by Aisha Harris on the accuracy of the interpretation of Allen’s life in the White House, worth repeating in full:
A few days after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the Washington Postpublished an article about a black butler who served in the White House for 34 years, under eight presidents, from Truman to Reagan. Eugene Allen represented, as journalist Wil Haygood wrote, “a story from the back pages of history. A figure in the tiniest of print. The man in the kitchen.”
“He was there,” Haygood continued, “while America’s racial history was being remade: Brown v. Board of Education, the Little Rock school crisis, the 1963 March on Washington, the cities burning, the civil rights bills, the assassinations.” Allen undoubtedly lived a fascinating life, meeting countless historical figures during especially polarizing times, and it’s unsurprising that Haygood’s profile caught the eye of Hollywood. It is now the basis for Lee Daniels’ The Butler (the director’s name is included thanks to silly copyright claims made by Warner Bros).
But as interesting as Haygood’s profile is, “A Butler Well Served by This Election” doesn’t provide that many details about Allen’s time in the White House outside a handful of facts and humorous anecdotes. (Allen’s wife Helene referred affectionately to former First Lady Rosalynn Carter as “country,” for instance.) The Butler is a bit more than 2 hours long, spans several decades, and includes multiple storylines. It’s fair to say it has epic ambitions.
So how much of Allen’s real-life experience actually made it into the film?
Not much. According to Daniels’ foreword in The Butler: A Witness to History, a book by Haygood published to accompany the film, the movie “is set against historical events,” but “the title character and his family are fictionalized.” The skeleton of Allen’s story is there: the childhood on a plantation in the early 1920s, the interactions with several presidents. But the names have been changed: Allen and his wife, Helene, are called Cecil and Gloria Gaines. (They’re played by Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.) At least one key character, Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo), is entirely made up.
The following breakdown is based on Haygood’s profile and the accompanying book. (I have emailed Haygood and will update the post if he provides additional information.) Spoilers follow.
The butler’s backstory
The film opens with young Cecil in Macon, Georgia, in the 1920s, working in a cotton field alongside his father. His mother (Mariah Carey) is raped by a white plantation overseer, Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer), loud enough for everyone to hear. When Westfall returns, Cecil’s father shows his anger, and Westfall shoots him dead in front of Cecil and the other plantation workers. The plantation matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) then decides that Cecil should leave the fields to become a “house nigger” and learn to serve her family.
Those appear to be the inventions of screenplay writer Danny Strong; they are never mentioned in Haygood’s piece.* Eugene Allen was born in 1919, and, like Cecil, he grew up on a plantation (in Virginia, not Georgia). He, too, became a “house boy” for a white family. When he spoke to Haygood about his childhood, “There was nary a hint of bitterness in his voice about his upbringing.” Allen left the plantation in hopes of finding better work, as Cecil does—but unlike his fictional counterpart, he never broke into a hotel restaurant to steal food. (He did, however, land a job at a Virginia hotel as a waiter, as Cecil ultimately does in North Carolina.)
How the butler got his job at the White House
Allen learned of a job at a country club in Washington, D.C., a fact that aligns with Cecil’s move to the nation’s capital. But their entries to the White House differ considerably: Allen learned via word of mouth that Alonzo Fields, a black maître d’ at the White House, was looking for pantry workers, and he went to talk to him. He began working there in 1952, during the Truman administration, but didn’t get promoted to butler until several years later. In the movie, the White House calls Gaines after a white senior staffer witnesses Cecil in action at the D.C. hotel—a point Cecil, in voiceover, emphasizes proudly.
Cecil is hired as butler just as soon as black maître d’ Freddie Fallows (Colman Domingo) confirms that he is not actively political and is experienced in his field. He begins working in the White House under Eisenhower’s administration, in 1957.
Other moments from the film appear to be true: Allen witnessed presidents mulling over important historical decisions, including Eisenhower’s fight with Arkansas governor Orval Faubus regarding the desegregation of Little Rock. And his wife Helene did pass away just prior to Obama’s election (though it was the Sunday night prior, not the morning of, as the film implies).
The butler’s family
Allen had one son, Charles, who served in Vietnam, just as Cecil’s younger son (also named Charles) does. Allen’s son survived the war, while his fictional counterpart does not. The real-life Charles is still alive, and has seen and approved of the new movie, according to Haygood.
The invented older son, Louis, serves as the main source of conflict in the narrative of Cecil’s life, in an attempt to highlight the clash between the older and younger black generation. Louis, who’s ashamed that his father is content with serving white people, is himself present for several important historical moments, including the attack and burning of a Freedom Riders bus in 1961; he’s also imprisoned in the same jail as Martin Luther King, Jr. after a protest.
Gloria Gaines, the butler’s wife, has an affair with a neighbor (Terrence Howard) and struggles with alcoholism. These storlines appear to be fictional.
The butler and the Reagans
Judging from Haygood’s interview, it seems that Allen, like Cecil, was grateful to have his job at the White House, and wary of involving himself in the politics of the time—even in his old age, he is not quoted saying anything disparaging about the presidents he worked under. In the movie, Cecil asks for equal pay among the black and white service staff, who each perform the same level of duties. His request is denied, and he accepts this. Years later, he again asks for a raise, and when he is turned down a second time, he tells his supervisor that he spoke to President Reagan personally, and that Reagan insists on the raise himself. Allen did receive a promotion to maître d’ in 1980, but there’s no indication that he ever asked for a raise.*
Cecil’s character arc is complete when Nancy Reagan invites him to the state dinner as a guest—the first black butler to receive such an invitation in the history of the White House. This did, in fact, happen to Allen, but the cinematic version unfolds quite differently. Here’s how it’s described in Haygood’s profile:
“Had champagne that night,” the butler’s wife would remember all these years later. As she said it, Eugene, rocking in his chair, just grinned: for so many years he had stocked champagne in the White House.
In the film, on the other hand, Cecil’s discomfort at sitting among the white elite is made clear through voiceover, as he describes feeling like an outsider and a traitor to his black colleagues who are now serving him. He can now see first-hand how each server “performs” for guests, and recognizes that he’s been unknowingly wearing the same mask for years. This moment, along with Cecil overhearing Reagan’s promise to veto the sanctions against apartheid-ridden South Africa, prompts the butler to hand in his resignation. Haygood’s article only mentions that Eugene “left the White House in 1986” and received a “sweet note” from the president and a “tight” hug from First Lady Nancy.
The butler and Obama
The film ends with Cecil returning to the White House to meet President Obama. I can’t tell if Allen ever actually met the president, but he did get a VIP invitation to the inauguration in 2009, and was in attendance on that historical day. When he passed away in 2010, the president sent a letter to his family acknowledging his years in service and “abiding patriotism.”