Lee Daniels’ The Butler – Sunday, August 18 at AMC Loews Lincoln Square. Director: Lee Daniels. Writer: Danny Strong. I had something quite different in mind when I first thought of writing about this film. Though I recognized that the film had strong performances from the leads, and was well made in a straightforward, traditional style that was effective, my initial reaction was much more negative than positive. The story of Cecil Gaines, who served as a White House butler during four turbulent decades, is a strong one. But the fact that Cecil is a largely fictional character was very problematic for me.
This feeling was only reinforced when I read this excerpt from Lee Daniels’ foreward to The Butler: A Witness to History by Wil Haygood, published as a companion to the film: “While the movie The Butler is set against historical events, the title character and his family are fictionalized, we were able to borrow some extraordinary moments from Eugene’s real life to weave into the movie.”
The film states in the credits that it is “inspired by a true story,” which gives filmmakers a lot of leeway. Screenwriter Danny Strong’s inspiration came from a short article by Wil Haygood, “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” which appeared in The Washington Post in November of 2008. The piece sketches the story of Eugene Allen, a black man who served as a White House butler during eight administrations for over three decades (1952-1986). This is a powerful, timely premise for a movie, and it’s easy to see why it would appeal to Hollywood.
The Butler does not present itself as fact, but I think it may have been initially perceived that way. At least, after first hearing about the film and seeing the early trailers, I assumed the butler’s story was more factual than it turned out to be. I was surprised and troubled when I learned that most of the details of Cecil Gaines’ life were fiction. It seemed the filmmakers felt that they had to make more of a movie out of the story; that they had to pump it up with drama. It wasn’t enough that The Butler‘s Cecil was a witness to all this history, he had to have a personal connection, via his activist son Louis, to events during the formative years of the Civil Rights movement, as well as Vietnam and Black Power.
(If you haven’t seen the film, there are some spoilers from this point on.)
I think what bothered me the most was what was fabricated for Cecil’s background and his family. Eugene Allen did grow up on a plantation (in Virginia, not Georgia), but by all accounts, his mother was neither raped by the plantation owner nor his father shot dead in front of him, as Cecil experiences in the film. Eugene’s wife Helene was not an alcoholic, nor was she sexually involved with a sleazy neighbor (played by Terrence Howard), as is Cecil’s wife, called Gloria in the film. In The Butler, Cecil and Gloria have two sons: a younger son Charles who is killed in Vietnam, and Louis, who becomes actively involved in Civil Rights, evolving from being arrested as a Freedom Rider in the South to becoming militant as a Black Panther. Cecil’s struggles with Louis’ actions are the main source of conflict in the film. Eugene and Helene Allen had only one son, also named Charles. He did go to Vietnam, but survived. It should be noted that the real-life Charles, who works as an investigator in the State Department, has endorsed the film. ____________________________________________________________________
It was only when I read an interview Jay A. Fernandez conducted with screenwriter Danny Strong that I began to see The Butler in a different light. In the interview Strong says:
“It’s important to understand, there’s a reason why the character’s name is Cecil Gaines. Because this is not the Eugene Allen story. It’s not just about him. We were hoping to capture the essence of Eugene Allen, and I think we did. But it’s not just about him. It’s about several other people I spoke to that worked at the White House as well so that the film would create this universal truth for many people of what that experience was like.”
When asked how the narrative came together, he says:
“There were two big breakthroughs. It was a story that took place over many administrations. As soon as I realized that this was going to be a story about the Civil Rights movement, and that was going to be the spine of the film, that was the first breakthrough. In all these administrations, there will be a common theme going on as we travel through the eras. And then the second breakthrough was [creating] a son who was a Civil Rights activist so that we could actually be in the center of the action while those events were happening. That created this really great triangle of the butler trying to get his son out of the Civil Rights movement and the presidents dealing with the crises that his son is in the middle of as the butler is serving those presidents. It made the story emotional even when the butler wasn’t speaking in the White House, and it created what I thought would be a very interesting generational story between father and son. It keeps everything personal and emotional as opposed to a history lesson.”
I found this reasoning to be persuasive; it changed the way I saw The Butler. I finally realized that, duh, this is a movie, and the goal is to find the most effective way to tell the story. To that end, I think they did a good job, even though the way the narrative is constructed to highlight the basic outline of the Civil Rights movement is a bit didactic and schematic at times. A definite plus is that The Butler is very strong in its casting and performances. Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey are quite extraordinary as Cecil and Gloria Gaines. This is Oprah’s first major role in a feature film since Beloved in 1998, and she’s terrific. It doesn’t take long to forget that she’s Oprah. David Oyelowo is very strong as Louis Gaines. He’s an excellent actor, and was especially good in last year’s grossly underseen Middle of Nowhere. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz are stand-outs as Cecil’s co-workers in the White House kitchen. The roles of the various presidents Cecil served under are more like a parade of cameos, some more successful than others. Robin Williams barely registers in his brief time on screen as Eisenhower, while John Cusack seems weird and off the mark as Nixon (though maybe that’s appropriate). Alan Rickman probably fares the best as Ronald Reagan, with Jane Fonda good as Nancy in a few short scenes.
It’s hard not to be stirred by Lee Daniels’ The Butler (to give it its full, unwieldy title), even as you know you’re being manipulated. President Obama says he “teared up” when he saw it. There’s been a firestorm of debate about the film, mainly focused the issue of accuracy. But audiences don’t seem to care about that; they made The Butler number one at the box-office for three consecutive weeks, which almost never happens. The Butler may not have as much to say about race in America as did Brian Hegeland’s Jackie Robinson film 42 (2013) or Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), for example, but I think it does what it sets out to do, and it does it pretty well. The final scenes of Cecil Gaines are very moving, whether they actually happened or not. — Ted Hicks
It was a bit of a disconnect for me to realize that screenwriter Danny Strong played a recurring character, the dweebish Jonathan Levinson, in 29 episodes of one of my favorite TV series, Josh Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Strong went on write two very good HBO movies, Recount (2008) and Game Change (2010). He’s on a roll with The Butler, and is already writing the next two films in the blockbuster Hunger Games series, Mockingjay Part 1 & 2 (2014 & 2015).
The controversy over the title was caused by Warner Bros. claiming that if the new film was called The Butler, it would somehow infringe on an obscure 1916 short film of theirs which has the same title. Unaccountably, the MPAA agreed with Warners and made The Weinstein Company add Lee Daniels’ name to the title. This is especially absurd since motion picture titles have been repeated at least 122 times so far, probably more. For example, there have been films called Heat in 1986, 1994, and forthcoming in 2014. No one seems too upset about that. It makes you wonder what Warners’ real agenda was.
Finally, there’s a theater owner in Kentucky — a former Korean War vet who later trained pilots to fly in Vietnam — who refuses to show The Butler because Jane Fonda is in it. He makes a point of not showing any films with “Hanoi Jane” in them, because of her anti-war activities, which included a trip to North Vietnam during the war. This is America, it’s his theater and he can do what he wants, but — seriously?