The Butler is very, very loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, a man who worked for 34 years as a butler at the White House, starting in President Truman’s time and finishing with President Reagan. It is true that Allen worked from Truman to Reagan; it is true that he was given one of Kennedy’s ties by Jackie after the assassination. This film, however, is not a biopic about Allen, rather it seeks to show the battles of the civil rights movements and the slowly changing position of black American citizens during this period, by contrasting the White House butler’s position with that of his politically active son.
Cecil Gaines starts life in the cotton fields but his life is changed for ever when his father is arbitrarily shot in front of him by the white owner of the plantation. This has two important effects on him: firstly, he learns the absolute power of white over black; secondly, the lady of the house, feeling sorry for him, takes him in and teaches him how to be a house servant. He moves north when he grows up, is ‘discovered’ and becomes one of the White House butlers. However, his son grows up and joins the civil rights movement: while the father is polishing silver, for instance, the son is riding the freedom bus which is firebombed by the Ku Klux Klan. At points such as this in the film, real footage is shown of the extreme violence inflicted on peaceful civil rights campaigners (black and white). In the White House, the various presidents react in different ways to the civil rights campaigns: Kennedy was moved by their plight and there is a strong implication that he would have done more if he had not been assassinated. Slowly, slowly, while gaining stature in the White House, Gaines starts to see how unjust the system is and he becomes quietly more assertive about his rights. With Reagan’s refusal to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa, he leaves to join the protests.
The cast is strong: Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, Oprah Winfrey as his wife and David Oyelowo (an Oxford-born man) as their son hold your attention. Some of the Presidents are surprising – Robin Williams as Eisenhower, Alan Rickman as Reagan for instance – but all excellent; Jane Fonda pops up as Nancy Reagan, Cuba Gooding Jr , a fellow butler, is always good value and Vanessa Redgrave does one of her wonderful cameos as the plantation owner’s mother.
This film could have tried to portray all the different presidents: instead, the producers wisely choose seminal moments and linger on them so, although the film covers a long period, the film never feels rushed. This is a really fascinating portrayal of the events of this period but is also an immensely human film and well worth seeing.