The Butler is a sobering film, based on the life story of Eugene Allen, an African American born in the cotton fields of Georgia at a time when the white ruling classes used and abused the black population as slaves and worse.
In this film Eugene becomes Cecil Gaines played by Forest Whitaker. As a boy he sees his mother being taken to a shed by the plantation owner and raped; when his father tries to protest he’s shot in the head. The traumatised boy is taken from the field by the woman who runs the house and she trains him as a house servant who then has the indignity of having to serve the man who destroyed his family. The discipline he learns and the quiet acceptance of his place in society leads him on an amazing path to the White House and service under presidents from Eisenhower to Ragan, marriage to Gloria, an impressive performance from Oprah Winfrey, and the birth of two sons, Louis and Charlie.
The pace of this film is balanced but relentless as director Lee Daniels mixes convincing scenes of violence with actual footage of the Ku Klux Klan attacking and burning the freedom bus, the lynchings and the brutal beatings. Louis who has a social conscious has joined the Black Panther movement and to his fathers shame is an activist in the middle of the brutal horror. The film presents the father as being the white face of the black man doing as he’s told to hold his job at the White House, even though he and the rest of the black staff are belittled and devalued. On the other side of the coin is the son, fighting for civil rights then deciding violence is no answer; he returns to college leaving with a Master’s Degree in Political Science. Eventually he makes his presence felt by winning a seat in Congress.
One of the most uncomfortable scenes comes when Ronald and Nancy Reagan invite Cecil to be a guest at a state dinner. Sadly, he and Gloria are being used as pawns in a game, there only as a token. This realisation and their emotional reaction makes for a mixture of sadness and anger in the viewer.
This is history made fascinating through the eyes of the young black slave turned professional butler to the most powerful men in the world but throughout the underlying question is, can the father forgive the son for challenging the authority of the white man to gain equality, and can the son forgive his father for accepting his lot?
A clue comes when, before he resigns, Cecil gains Ragan’s agreement to ensure the black staff receive the same rates of pay and opportunities of advancement as their white counterparts. He has come to see the value of stern negotiation to achieve a fair society and to see the first black president take office in the White House. Quite a story – and it’s true.
A very strong cast makes this a memorable film.