Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013, dir. Lee Daniels, duh!) tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), the son of a Georgia cotton-picker who leaves after being trained as a domestic servant and eventually works his way up to being a well-respected butler at the White House. He starts working there under President Dwight D. Eisenhower and quits during President Reagan’s tenure, serving through various famous events, such as the Little Rock school desegregation crisis, the Kennedy assassination, the Voting Rights Act, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Vietnam, Nixon’s resignation, and the debate over South African Apartheid under Reagan. At the end of the film, after voting for Barack Obama, he is invited back to the White House as an honored guest.
The film is “inspired by true events”, which is Hollywood-speak for “it’s basically made up.” In this case, the film was very loosely modeled on the life of Eugene Allen, who worked at the White House from 1952 to 1986. Shortly after the 2008 election of Barack Obama, the Washington Post ran an article on Allen, which prompted the film.
But while Allen was the inspiration for the film, and Gaines’ time at the White House covers almost the same range of years (Gaines starts in 1957), there are only a few similarities between the two men. Allen was married with one son, whereas Gaines is married with two sons; Allen’s wife Helene and Gaines’ wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) both die just before the 2008 election. Jackie Kennedy really did give Allen one of her husband’s ties after the assassination, and Nancy Reagan really did invite Allen to a state dinner.But beyond these details, the film takes enormous liberties. Allen was from Virginia, whereas Gaines is from Georgia. In the film, his mother is raped by her employer, who promptly shoots Gaines’ father for protesting it. That’s complete fiction; it’s purpose is to help establish for the viewer the legal and social inequalities between blacks and whites that is really the theme of the whole film. Nor, so far as I can tell, did a young Gaines break into a bakery to get something to eat and be taken in by a black employee.
In the film, Gaines starts at the White House as a butler and 30 years later is still just a butler. He periodically asks the Maitre d’hotel (the head of the domestic staff at the White House) for pay equal to the white employees and equal career opportunities, and continues getting turned down until he finally quits as an act of protest. Allen, however, started out not as a butler but as a pantry worker, shining silver and doing similar chores. He was promoted to butler and by the end of his career he was the Maitre d’hotel. So the film’s claim that the White House did not permit its black employees to advance at all is false.However, while these details are untrue, they do serve to dramatize a basic problem at the White House; while the domestic staff included large numbers of black men and women, there were comparatively few blacks in political offices of any level; usually no more than one or two in any administration. The year after Allen retired, Colin Powell became the highest-ranking black man to hold any White House position when President Reagan named him National Security Advisor in 1987.
Father and Son
Daniels smartly focuses on race issues in the film by contrasting Gaines’ service to various presidents with the experiences of his son Louis (David Oyelowo), who is essentially fictional (Charles Allen was not a political activist). When he graduates from high school, Louis decides to go to Fisk University where he meets Carol (Yaya DaCosta). While Gaines appears to be a Republican for most of the film (as considerable numbers of blacks were in the 1950s, since the Republicans were “the party of Lincoln”) Louis and Carol slowly become radicalized by their experiences, which allows the film to depict numerous moments in the turbulent racial politics of the 1960s.At Fisk, Louis meets James Lawson, an early advocate of nonviolent political action (who did, in fact, work with students at Fisk), and Louis and Carol participate in a lunch counter sit-in. The specific training in non-resistance they participate in and the violent treatment they receive at the lunch counter are some of the most powerful scenes in the whole film, showing how the Civil Rights movement involved carefully planned strategy, not just spontaneous events. (A good example of this is Rosa Parks; contrary to the usual depiction of her, Parks was not simply too tired to get up from that bus seat; her action was a very intentional gesture. As the secretary of local NAACP president E.D. Nixon, she understood that the NAACP was looking for a good candidate to trigger a lawsuit over the bus system’s discriminatory policies, and she knew there were plans for a local bus boycott.) The Sit-in scene is a damn good piece of film-making.
After Louis gets arrested, he has a falling out with Cecil and they part ways, barely seeing each other for years. Louis and Carol participate in a Freedom Ride and narrowly survive an ambush by the KKK. They get arrested repeatedly, have fire hoses and dogs turned on them in Birmingham, are present at Selma during the Voting Rights march, and are with Dr. King when he is assassinated in Memphis. They become advocates of Black Power and join the Black Panthers, but Louis eventually becomes disenchanted when the movement starts drifting toward violence.All of this makes the film a virtual primer on the Civil Rights struggle. The film repeatedly contrasts scenes of White House gentility with scenes of racist violence, and Gaines hears a good deal of discussion about the politics of race issues by various presidents and their advisors. Gaines and his son travel in opposite arcs, one from conservatism to activism and the other from radicalism to more moderate forms of protest, finding reconciliation when Gaines finally finds the dignity to quit his job after being refused another pay raise. And it’s true that Eugene Allen did live through all of these upheavals while working at the White House.
But the tidiness of it all simply feels false. It makes sense that Gaines saw Jackie Kennedy after her husband was assassinated and spoke with a despondent President Nixon shortly before his resignation, because he was a domestic staffer whose job including waiting on the First Family. But to have his son constantly be thrust into similarly important moments during the Civil Rights struggle from the side of the activists simply strains credulity too much for the film to be truly persuasive as a depiction of history; it’s several coincidences too many.
Which is a pity, because the underlying story the film is telling us is both true and important. Looking at the Civil Right era from these twin perspectives provides a more nuanced depiction of the black experience during this period than one normally gets in film or television. The conflicting viewpoints of Gaines and his son show how complex the political choices facing black people were at the time. Louis thinks his father is being subservient to power until Dr. King comments that the dignified service of black servants was a powerful way of undermining stereotypes of blacks as lazy and stupid. Gaines thinks his son is being disrespectful by protesting, and slowly comes to realize that perhaps being respectable isn’t enough. Both Gaines and his son slowly become disenchanted with the organizations they belong to because the one seems to ignore the needs of black citizens and the other becomes too radical.
Gaines, the film’s central character, is written to be quiet, dignified, and stoic, apart from one brief outburst at his son. While that may be true to Allen’s personality (or perhaps simply his public persona), it doesn’t always give Whitaker much to work with, and Gaines sometimes feels like a cipher. Louis often comes across more sympathetically than his father does. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better job of aging in character in a film; by the end of the film Whitaker does genuinely come across as a frail old man.
The best performance, however, is by Oprah Winfrey, who sinks her teeth into the surprisingly nuanced role of the alcoholic Gloria, who is at different moments proud of and resentful of her husband’s job, deeply in love with him and sexually frustrated by him, angry at Louis and worried about his safety. It’s a role to remind you that she’s an Academy Award nominated actress. And it’s a nice break from the noxious Hollywood tendency of casting inappropriately young actresses as romantic partners for much older male stars.Lee Daniels’ The Butler is not a perfect film; the inclusion of the radical Louis Gaines as a central character simply feels too pat and strains credulity. But it does an excellent job of introducing the viewer to the turbulence of racial issues in the 1950s and 60s, and the concept of making a movie about this period in which white presidents are merely supporting players in a story about the political and personal struggles of a black family feels gently subversive. Watching famous white actors like Robin Williams, John Cusack, Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda having cameos while the black actors takes center stage is a pleasant change of pace from normal Hollywood casting. Although the film occasionally feels like it’s straining to prove it’s a prestige movie, the subject matter alone makes it worth watching and the solid performances make it enjoyable.
Update: In the original draft of this column, I made a comment about the inclusion of Lee Daniels’ name in the title. It has been pointed out to me that this was actually forced on Daniels, who would have preferred to use the title “The Butler”, which was a title legally owned by Warner Bros. Thus Daniels was not responsible for the decision. Since it wasn’t Daniels’s choice, I’ve removed the comment.
Want to Know More?
Lee Daniels’ The Butleris available on Amazon. The article that inspired the film was released as a promotional piece for the film, along with some material about the making of the film. You can get it as The Butler: A Witness to History, but it’s probably not worth the money. You can find the original article here.
If you want to know more about the below-stairs work at the White House, The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House might be a better choice.
There are many good books on different aspects of the Civil Rights struggle. One good general treatment is Daniel Luck’s Selma to Saigon: The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War (Civil Rights and Struggle). You might also consider looking at the various primary documents of the movement, collected in The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, which is a companion piece to the acclaimed PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement