At some point during Lee Daniels’ The Butler, you’ll find yourself thinking, “Wow, what a crazy life this guy and, even more so, his son led.” It will happen.
As it turns out, the movie may declare it was “inspired by a true story”, but it was actually as inspired by a true story as Good Morning Vietnam was… which is to say, not much.
Yes, there was a man who served as a butler in the White House through the terms of eight presidents. But that’s about it.
That’s not to say that The Butler isn’t a good movie. It is, certainly, and it’s anchored by some of the best performances on screen so far this year, including Forrest Whitaker the titular Cecil Gaines and by Oprah Winfrey as his wife. But the script occasionally suffers from screenwriter Danny Strong (HBO’s Game Change) trying to cram too much stuff into too little time (even with its 2:12 running time), and it’s undermined by having too much be too incredible to be true.
The film begins with young Cecil (really, his name was Eugene Allen) watching as his mother is raped and father is murdered on a cotton plantation in Georgia. (Allen was really born in Virginia and worked as a waiter at the Homestead Resort.) Eventually he finds his way into the White House, first as a pantry worker and then as butler years later. With his wife Gloria (really, her name was Helene), he had two sons (really, one), one of whom was a devoted civil rights worker (really, he worked at the State Department). And it’s with that story line of Louis (David Oyelowo) that we quickly realize the movie is a fictionalization being used to tackle the issue of race in America.
Throughout, The Butler feels like a mash-up of Forrest Gump and Mississippi Burning (lite), showing how one well-meaning person is at the precise place and time of most of the Civil Rights Era’s seminal events. Louis is sitting at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in North Carolina, riding on the Freedom Bus in Anniston, Alabama, marching in Selma, and sharing that hotel room with MLK in Memphis.
Meanwhile, Cecil is back at the White House bringing Eisenhower his tea, reading a book to Caroline Kennedy, and getting LBJ his prune juice. Most of the time, Louis’ story is the far more interesting one, and it doesn’t feel like Strong knew how to reconcile both plot lines.
It’s the actors, though, who propel The Butler to the finish line, and both Whitaker and Winfrey turn in some of the best work of their respective careers. Parenthetically, the same can’t be said for the odd parade of cameos by actors portraying the Presidents whom Cecil served (Robin Williams as Eisenhower, Alan Rickman as Reagan, and, most inexplicably, John Cusack as Nixon), but their parts are, thankfully, kept small.
The Butler is, despite all this, a compelling film throughout, and it’s worth it, even if only for the couple of performances that are sure to be remembered during the upcoming awards season.
I would just advise against letting your child use it as the basis for a history report on the butler who served in the White House for 34 years.