Relying on the star power of its ensemble cast, Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013) is a biographical drama that tells the story of a black man who serves at the White House through multiple terms of United States' presidency. Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker stars as the character of Cecil Gaines, a role that is inspired by the real life experiences of Eugene Allen. Along with Whitaker, the billing is riddled with stars including Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Mariah Carey, Clarence Williams III and Vanessa Redgrave. This powerful conglomerate of talent has certainly brought a substantial amount of attention to the picture, which has resulted in The Butler enjoying several weeks at the top of the box office charts.
The film takes the audience on a ride through the fictional life of Gaines, which includes his childhood on a cotton plantation, his life as a young adult working at hotels, to his job offer to join the White House staff. However, aside from working in the White House, the lives of Gaines and Allen do not have much in common. The life of the real butler can be read about in this Washington Post article, but the film version will be discussed more thoroughly here.
Gaines spends his early childhood on a plantation farm where the owner rapes his mother and murders his father. This is an early difference between the story of Gaines and the reality of Allen, and was said to have been added for the purpose of dramatic effect. Gaines' early life is difficult, but things become easier for him as he is taught household chores rather than working the cotton fields. Another change that was made in the film was how Gaines came about his job in the White House and the start date of which he was employed. These changes seem to have been made with the purpose of relating the film more to the Civil Rights Movement, which is really what the film is all about.
The next major difference really provides some information about the perspective of Lee Daniels' picture. While Allen only had one son, Cecil Gaines is blessed with two in the movie. The younger son, Charles, shares the name of Allen's real life son, but lives a shortened life as he is killed in Vietnam. Charles Allen is still living and has worked as an investigator for the State Department. Meanwhile, the older son of Gaines, Louis, is a main focus in the film, as he and his father stand at opposite ends of the spectrum for the majority of the film. Louis heads off to college, but ends up become very involved with the Civil Rights Movement, of which his father is very disapproving. He spends a lot of time in jail, gets to know Martin Luther King Jr., becomes temporarily involved with the Black Panthers, and ultimately decides to finish school and run for political office. It is between the comfortable life of servitude, lived by Cecil, and the dangerous battle against social values, chosen by Louis, that the real voice of The Butler comes forth.
The movie undoubtedly offers an interesting perspective on the life of Allen through its own character of Gaines, and also provides an important reminder of civil rights history; but, in the end it seems as if it is simply a piece of propaganda whose motives get lost in its attempts to make itself more available to the general public. It seemed as if the film lacked in artistic vision, especially in its choices of actors who portrayed the various Presidents depicted in the film. So, if you are really interested in the life of the butler whom this movie loosely depicts, I would recommend doing your own research or checking out Marjorie Hunt's documentary White House Workers: Traditions and Memories (2009). If you are interested in Lee Daniels' perspective of the Civil Rights Movement, then The Butler is something you should find thoroughly entertaining.