Lee Daniels’ The Butler, now in its third week, has grossed about $54 million and set a box office record. The film was inspired by the life experience of Eugene Allen, a White House butler who served eight presidents, Truman through Reagan, from 1952 to ’86.
The star-studded cast, headed by Oscar winner Forest Whittaker and talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, promised a great movie. An avid moviegoer who seldom misses movie openings, I, like hundreds of others fans, caught the opening matinee.
The movie delivered much of what was expected and some of what was promised. Historical incidents and presidential politics were interspersed throughout the film; however, the authenticity of Allen’s life fell short.
The movie was supposedly inspired by the Nov. 7, 2008 Washington Post feature article, “The Butler Best Served By This Election,” written by Wil Haygood. The movie has been so fictionalized that, except for the lead character being a White House butler, little else coincides with Allen’s life, especially his childhood.
Even Allen’s name was changed to Cecil Gaines. Allen was given an alcoholic adulterous wife and a fictitious older second son who was a civil rights activist, Black Panther, and freedom rider. In real life, Allen had only one son, who served in Vietnam, and he was married to his wife, Helene, for 65 years.
Haygood also wrote, The Butler, A Witness to History, a book that further explores Allen’s life and experience. After reading the article and much of the book, I believe the inspiration went astray.
There are some accurate accounts, such as how Allen’s character interacts with the Kennedy children and engages with the presidents; however, I believe Allen’s life would be far more interesting than the film’s Hollywood version.
The critics’ reviews are mixed. Some critically acclaim the film for its political and historical depictions, and others criticize it for casting every politically conservative and or liberal actor or actress known today.
There are some touching and truthful moments, like when the butler and his wife attend a state dinner as Ronald Reagan’s guest. This film depicts a friendly and respectful relationship between Reagan and Gaines, yet Reagan’s son, Michael, expressed extreme displeasure.
In his Newsmax column, Reagan calls the film, “The Butler from another Planet,” saying the film implies his father harbored racist notions. Reagan vehemently takes exception to that depiction.
In light of the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s March on Washington, and the Civil Rights Movement, the film’s historical incidents could inspire younger movie-goers to learn more about the times that shaped our lives today.
I enjoyed the film. I was pleased and touched by what I saw. Yet having lived through the Civil Rights Movement, and in later years becoming active in it, the movie also enraged me.
On Aug. 27, President Obama appeared on Tom Joyner’s syndicated radio show and said, “I teared up thinking about not just the butlers who worked here in the White House, but an entire generation of people who were talented and skilled.”
Obama added: “With dignity and tenacity, they got up and worked every day and put up with a whole lot of mess because they hoped for something better for their kids.”
I talked with another moviegoer, J. Smith, who said her problem with The Butler is that “someone else is always telling our story.” She added, “The Butler was written by the same white guy that wrote Precious. A white woman wrote The Help, and 42 was told through Branch Rickey. Why we can’t tell our own story?” she asked.
She makes a good point. Her question reminds me of an old African proverbs where at the end of the story, a young child asks the elder why Africans in the story are always captured or overcome by the aggressors, and the elder replies, “Because we are not telling the story.”
I think the film would have been better with more of Allen’s story and less of Hollywood’s rewrite. Maybe Wil Haygood or some other African-American writer will write a stage play and a true tribute to Allen’s life and legacy, including the fact that, before his death in 2010, he voted for and met the first African-American president of the United States.