There was a butler named Eugene Allen who worked in the White House starting in 1957 under the Eisenhower administration and proceeded to serve eight presidents in 34 years. He retired while Reagan was in office in 1991. Later he was invited to visit the White House when Obama took office.
These true events set the scene for The Butler, a mostly fictional tale of Cecil Gaines, who grew up as a young boy working on cotton fields in the south, who had to witness the rape of his mother and the murder of his father, while all the workers watched. As he grew up, he was “promoted” to “house nigger” by the matron of the plantation. Eventually he got jobs working as a waiter in country clubs and finally he was discovered by a White House staffer.
The movie follows him through a turbulent period of our history, the Civil Rights movement, from abuse in plantations in the 1930ies to lynching in the 1950ies, to the 1960ies of Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nixon, all the way to the rise of Obama.
We witness the world through the eyes and ears of a man who is trained to “make a room look empty when he is in it” who nonetheless gets to watch history being made by standing in the Oval Office, observing presidents making momentous decisions.
I enjoyed seeing actors play presidents, albeit just in short vignettes, as the story progressed. All of them did their jobs well:
- Robin Williams as Eisenhower
- James Marsden as Kennedy
- Liev Schreiber as Johnson
- John Cusack as Nixon
- Alan Rickman as Reagan
Oprah Winfrey put in an excellent performance as the butler’s wife, Gloria Gaines.
And of course, Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines masterfully!
The Butler tells a story that must be told, over and over again. This is especially true now where bigotry and discrimination appear on the rise again at a time when things are not going so smoothly for the country, and when there are still many places all over the world where people live in slavery.
The Butler is a powerful movie that graphically depicts the challenges of the Civil Rights Movement as it occurred, and it explains why it needed to happen. The election of Barack Obama seemingly crowns the work of millions of people over many decades, and provides a satisfying ending.