Despite having a star-studded cast, an incredibly interesting protagonist and a inspired-by-a-true-story tag line, Lee Daniels The Butler never wowed me. It entertained me and it interested me but it never made me feel anything. I expected to leave the movie and still be thinking about its message and its main character days later. But instead I left and grabbed dinner and went on with my night.
Like Forrest Gump, it focused on a protagonist who witnesses amazing historic events over a long a period of time. Except unlike Forrest Gump, there are several characters competing for our attention. Imagine if Forrest’s mother turned out to be an alcoholic. Also imagine if she had a daughter who’s struggling with being a stay-at-home mom. And for fun let’s throw in another plot where Jenny has an eccentric aunt who’s about to be evicted from her home. Sure that all sounds interesting, but it also sounds like way, way too much drama for one two-and-a-half-hour movie. That’s the ultimate problem with The Butler. It tackles way too much in too short of a time. So rather than rooting for one person, you’re stuck trying to figure out how it all fits together. That’s not to say that there aren’t individual moments that made me feel something, because there are incredibly powerful scenes that still resonate with racism in our society today. But seeing those moments on screen only made me wish that they chosen one thing to focus on, rather than attempting to take it all on.
While I left the movie feeling totally meh, I still went home and researched the true story. Mostly because I’m a sucker for any and all movies that come with this tagline. I had to know just how much of Cecil Gaines’ (Forest Whitaker) life got included in the film and just how much they manufactured for drama. After reading through the Wall Street Journal article that inspired the film, it became clear that nothing was clear. Deep, I know. Despite spending a few hours researching the story with my friend Google, I still couldn’t confirm or deny much of the plot.
Here’s what we do know. Eugene Allen, the man known as Cecil Gaines in the movie, really did go from being born into a sharecropping family to becoming a beloved butler at the White House for many decades. While the movie states he started out as a butler there, the article in the WSJ says that he actually came in as a pantryman and worked his way up to that position. It impossible to read the original article about him and not be in awe of his story. He stayed at the job through eight presidencies; presidencies that happened to occur during the civil rights movement. It’s pretty incredible when you think about how much he must’ve witnessed and seen and could not speak about during those years. From the WSJ article, ”A Butler Well Served” we learn that he not only worked at the White House for decades, but he also bonded with the presidents in office.
President Truman called him Gene. President Ford liked to talk golf with him. He saw eight presidential administrations come and go, often working six days a week. “I never missed a day of work,” Allen says….”President Ford’s birthday and my birthday were on the same day,” he says. “He’d have a birthday party at the White House. Everybody would be there. And Mrs. Ford would say, ‘It’s Gene’s birthday, too!’ “…”She said, ‘You and Helene are coming to the state dinner as guests of President Reagan and myself.’ I’m telling you! I believe I’m the only butler to get invited to a state dinner.”
While a few details here and there get changed, Cecil Gaines’ story check out for the most part. It’s his son’s story that makes the waters a little murkier. In real life, Eugene had one son named Charles Allen who we know served in Vietnam and we know worked at the state department in 2008. Besides that, there’s not a lot of information out there on him. Even in this recent interview with Anderson Cooper, he reveals little about himself.
In the movie, he’s Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo), a young man who partakes in sit-ins, freedom rides and even Black Panther meetings. His active fight to get civil rights stands in direct contrast to his father’s long career as a servant to white people. There are several points in the movie where we’re shown how ashamed Louis is by his father’s career. At one point, the two become estranged and stop talking altogether. In real life, Charles Allen’s incredibly proud of his father. Watch the five minute interview above and that becomes clear. With that said, Louis is shown to have reconciled with his father by the end of the movie too…so once again, it really is unclear what is true and what isn’t. Danny Strong, the movie’s scriptwriter, says in an interview that they weren’t going for complete accuracy when writing the movie.
The Gaines family is a composite of different people, including former White House employees and their families as well as other people who lived through the dynamic eras represented in the film. Strong emphasizes he was reaching for emotional truth, not historical truth. “It was also important to me that the film never felt like a history lesson, and yet there was a tremendous amount of history that was going to be dramatized,” he says in the production notes.
While I at first felt manipulated after reading that quote, I got to thinking that it might not really matter what did and didn’t happen. (Although I should point out that Danny Strong says Eugene Allen’s wife, played by Oprah in the film, wasn’t really an alcoholic or a cheater.) If this movie raises awareness of not only what African-Americans went through in this country, but also what they’re still going through, then it’s doing something pretty important. Sure the film could’ve used a little tightening up and sure I think that Louis’ story — however true or not true it may be –deserves its own movie, it still sends a powerful message about what it was like to be black in this country during the civil rights movement. Considering what just happened with the Trayvon Martin verdict, it’s all too clear that the struggle for equal rights is still happening each and every day. If this makes one person reconsider their “slavery happened so long ago, they should just get over it” stance or even research the freedom rides, then it’s done something right.
(Photo: Entertainment Weekly)