“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” tells the story of Cecil Gaines, the African American son of a sharecropper who eventually serves as a White House butler to eight different presidents. Critic John Anderson praised Oprah Winfrey’s performance as the butler’s “likably edgy, sometimes boozy wife,” but thought that the movie lacked a certain focus:
Any movie that casts Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan certainly has a piquant sense of humor, but the prankishness of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” — so named after a title dispute with the MPAA — undermines the serious statements this star-spangled film is striving to make about race, class and politics. Along with missing the movie’s ever-migrating point, viewers may be forgiven for wondering whether “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” might have been titled “Lee Daniels’ Forrest Gump” — its hero challenged morally rather than mentally, but watching history in Gumpian fashion, as a series of cameos viewed through a slightly clueless daze.
The film is based on a Nov. 2008 Washington Post story by Wil Haygood, which ran just days after Barack Obama was elected president: “A Butler Well Served by This Election.” Haygood described Eugene Allen, who worked in the White House for more than 30 years, under eight different administrations, as “a black man unknown to the headlines”:
His is a story from the back pages of history. A figure in the tiniest of print. The man in the kitchen. He was there while America’s racial history was being remade: Brown v. Board of Education, the Little Rock school crisis, the 1963 March on Washington, the cities burning, the civil rights bills, the assassinations.
When he started at the White House in 1952, he couldn’t even use the public restrooms when he ventured back to his native Virginia. “We had never had anything,” Allen, 89, recalls of black America at the time. “I was always hoping things would get better.”
Allen sat in the shadow of the Capitol dome and watched Obama’s swearing-in as the first African American president of the United States in Jan. 2009:
“I never would have believed it,” Allen said, sitting in an invitation-only area. He wore a black cashmere coat purchased for the occasion, a checkered scarf and a Sinatra fedora. “In the 1940s and 1950s, there were so many things in America you just couldn’t do. You wouldn’t even dream that you could dream of a moment like this.”
Allen died March 31, 2010 of renal failure. He was 90. In the months after the publication of the original Washington Post article, Allen received book offers and speaking requests, all of which he declined:
“He liked to think of himself as just a humble butler,” his only child, Charles, said Thursday. Aside from his son, Mr. Allen is survived by five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Several hundred people attended Allen’s funeral at Greater First Baptist Church on 13th Street NW, and he was laid to rest at Rock Creek Cemetary in Petworth, wearing a White House pin on his lapel. His humility and charm was recalled at the funeral:
“His life represents an important part of the American story,” President Obama said in remarks read from a lectern by Rear Adm. Stephen W. Rochon, chief usher of the White House. The president’s letter cited Allen for his service to the country and his “abiding patriotism.”
“He was such a charming man,” said Delores Moaney, who worked at the White House as a maid during the Eisenhower administration. (The jobs were coveted and considered prestigious positions among blacks during that pre-civil rights era.) “I had worked as a maid with the Eisenhower family in New York,” she said, her hand resting on her cane. “When I got to the White House, I met Gene. You’d notice his smile right away.”