Eugene Allen was a butler in the White House for 34 years, through seven presidential administrations. Lee Daniels’ The Butler (hereafter called, simply, The Butler, because the inclusion of director Daniels’ name in the title is the result of an arcane lawsuit that has nothing to do with anything) tells his story. In the movie, however, Allen is turned into a character named Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) who as a child in 1926 saw his mother (Mariah Carey) raped and his father murdered by the plantation owner. He leaves Macon, Georgia and winds up working in an exclusive club in Washington, D.C. where, thanks to his experience in the plantation’s big house, he has learned to speak properly and wait on white people.
In the capital, he is noticed and asked to work in the White House. He begins when Eisenhower (Robin Williams) is president. We also meet Richard Nixon (John Cusack), JFK and Jackie (James Marsden and Minka Kelly), JBJ (Liev Schreiber) and Ronald and Nancy Reagan (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda). Presidents Ford and Carter are shown in vintage newsreels.
If you haven’t gotten the idea yet, it’s fair to say that The Butler is filled with stunt casting that might distract some viewers. But we also see important moments in our history — the murders of JFK and MLK, freedom rides and other scenes from the civil rights movement.
For the most human moments, we look to Cecil’s home life. Sons Charlie (Elijah Kelley) and Louis (Oyelowo) are children of their time. Louis goes south to do his part for civil rights, is jailed and, ultimately, makes a difference. Wife Gloria, feeling neglected by Cecil’s devotion to his job has an affair (with Terrence Howard) and takes up drinking.
Also human are the occupants of the White house. Ronald Reagan was the fairest of all of them to the black staff, even as he supported apartheid. Nancy Reagan invites Cecil and Gloria to a state dinner. LBJ shows a racist side even as he will sign the Civil Rights law.
While the historic stuff is interesting and, at times, fascinating, the human stuff is what gives the movie heart.
That said, The Butler is a terrific film, a reminder to those who can remember these events of what went on and, to those too young to remember, a fine look at American history. It is, surely, a must-see film that will absolutely be discussed as an Oscar contender.