“The Butler”

Annie McKay

Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” tells the fascinating, heartbreaking and emotional tale of Cecil Gaines, an African-American butler who served eight presidents at the White House. The film is loosely based on the true story of Eugene Allen, a butler at the White House from 1952 to 1986, who began as a pantry worker and retired as head butler. “The Butler” has an especially strong cast whose acting enables the audience to become emotionally connected to the story. The ensemble class most notably includes Forest Whitaker as Cecil, Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s wife Gloria and David Oyelowo as Louis, Cecil’s eldest son.

“The Butler” opens with scenes from Cecil’s (Whitaker) childhood on a plantation with his parents. From the day he was born, Cecil was always at the mercy of his white superiors. Cecil develops and moves through a couple of different jobs until he lands one at the White House. Throughout his time at the White House he experiences several presidents and administrations, each of which treat him slightly differently. Cecil is trained to serve the presidents with the utmost respect while listening to them speak candidly about various issues, including the civil rights movement and Vietnam War, which hit close to home. As Cecil continues his work in the White House, the audience sees him transition from a humble servant into an individual thinker who contemplates his life and his choices.

Coupled with the stress of his job at the White House, Cecil has a complex family dynamic to deal with. While he loves his family, Cecil experiences tension with his wife Gloria (Winfrey), who doesn’t understand how he can seemingly care about the presidents and their families more than his own. He also grows to have a strained relationship with his son Louis (Oyelowo), who joins the Freedom Riders to fight tooth and nail for his rights. Cecil’s youngest son Charlie (Elijah Kelley) takes a different approach, choosing to join the army and go to Vietnam. Through it all, Cecil overhears various administrations discussing issues that could affect his own sons’ lives, while maintaining a

professional demeanor at work.  

While “The Butler” has received mostly positive reception, many critics of the movie have voiced concern at the historically inaccurate portrayals of various presidents. For example, the film shows that Cecil retires because of the Reagan administration and their intolerance, whereas in real life, Reagan family members claim that Ronald Reagan and Eugene Allen had a particularly good rapport. It is also claimed that Eugene Allen retired due to old age.

Despite these criticisms, the aim of “The Butler” is not to recall the actions of different presidents, but rather to trace the story of a man and the way in which he dealt with the complex relationships in his life. The film incites a particularly emotional response towards racism from the audience and evinces how far the country has come on a host of political issues. The film’s complex characters and powerful scenes provide a lesson and a story that is valuable for all Americans.

Contact Annie McKay at [email protected]