Lee Daniels’ The Butler tells the story of Eugene Allen, a real-life butler who served in the White House for 34 years under 8 different presidents. Eugene and his family members’ names have been changed for the movie, as well as many intricate details of his life, but the story is based on experiences he had both at home and around the Oval Office.
Forest Whitaker plays the titular character, here referred to as Cecil Gaines. We see Cecil start his life out as the son of a slave on a cotton plantation and we get an idea of the hardships he had to experience as a young boy. He leaves the plantation as a result, and finds work as a servant where he acquires skills from a mentor on the job. It is this set of skills that helps him land the dream job of being a butler at the White House as an adult. Of course, he learns the strict rules of serving in such a special environment. But he becomes sort of a grand observer to many historic cases in American history. It’s almost like Forrest Gump but based in reality and not so far-fetched. Many of the presidents even find themselves confiding in Cecil at times.
These scenes are intertwined with Cecil’s home life where his wife is becoming an alcoholic and his oldest son a revolutionary who fights against racial injustice. Oprah Winfrey, in her first starring role in 15 years, plays the wife and is actually very convincing in her role. The same can be said for David Oleyowo as the eldest son. You feel his struggle as a man fighting for a cause but who’s ashamed of what his father does for a living since it seems to stand in contrast to what he stands for.
Director Lee Daniels certainly takes liberties with the actual story of Eugene Allen’s life, and also seems to paint a portrait of certain presidents in the light that he wants us to see them in. It can also be distracting to see so many famous names like Robin Williams and John Cusack popping up as various presidents along with others such as Mariah Carey having small roles. But I enjoyed watching such an eclectic cast comprise these various parts to tell this story. Political junkies may take issue with any historical inaccuracies, but as a movie it tells a great story that can be inspiring at the least. It demonstrates how hard work is the way to following the American dream which can be obtained by anyone.