The Butler

Eugene Allen worked for the White House for 34 years, serving under eight Presidents and finishing his career in the position of head butler. The Butler is based on his life but, I have read, is heavily fictionalized.

The story follows the main character, renamed Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker) from his youth on a cotton plantation, to his early years learning household service, through his tenure at the White House. During this time we see him witness, in Forrest-Gump-like fashion, the events of the battle for civil rights. We also see how members of his family tried to shape the change, and how young African-Americans in particular struggled to change the future.

The most interesting part of the film was the relationship between Gaines and his son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who becomes a crusader for the right to vote and ends up beaten and in prison — the target of racist brutality. He and his father have taken different paths, and it is a struggle for each to understand the other. Both these performances were excellent, and I really liked the dynamic.

Parts of this film are hard to watch. Some white people of the 1960s punished and burned and killed African Americans because of their belief that segregation was somehow morally ordained — an ugly display of racism. I can’t help wondering how those people justified their behavior at the time, and how they remember it now.

Otherwise — the movie was clunky and overlong in some parts. The butler’s interactions with the various white staff and the Presidents were sometimes stilted, and the story’s points were made hard, with not much subtlety. Still, this was the kind of movie we need every so often: personal, yet a reminder. Also, this is what history is — real people, doing what they can and yet being swept along, sometimes, in the forces stronger than they are.

More about The Butler at Rotten Tomatoes, here.