Lee Daniels’ The Butler: A Look Back at the Civil Rights Era

Lee Daniels’ The Butler goes back in time in American history, dating back to the 1920s before reaching just after the election and inauguration of President Barack Obama.

The film tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a character inspired by the story of White House butler Eugene Allen, who served as a White House butler to 7 American presidents over the span of three decades.

In addition to Whitaker, the film stars Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsen, David Oyelowo, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams, and Clarence Williams III.

Through Cecil’s son, Louis, the film looks at the start of the Civil Rights movement from the sit-in at Woolworth’s to Freedom Riders to the rise of the Black Panther movement. During the Johnson and Nixon years, there is footage shown from Vietnam, where Cecil’s son Charlie loses his life. We see how all these historical events affect Gaines’ life and his family through the years. Whether it happens to Gaines or his son, the audience is right there watching every move.

Danny Strong wrote the screenplay and it goes without saying that he dramatized some aspects for Hollywood. In real life, Eugene Allen only had one son. While his son, Charles, did serve in Vietnam, he did not die like the Charles in the film. While Gaines grew up in Macon, Georgia on a plantation farm, Allen was raised in Scottsville, Virginia. Slate takes a look at the fact vs. fiction aspect of the film.

Wil Haygood wrote about Allen back in November 2008 for The Washington Post. He also penned Allen’s obituary in April 2010.

This film is almost surely going to be an Oscar contender in the same way that The Help was in 2011. The film is important in that it depicts race relations in America. Whether its Fruitvale Station or 12 Years a Slave, this subject is not going to go away despite what the studios might think. Lee Daniels did a great job with the direction of the film.