Lee Daniels’ The Butler
 
            There are some movies that just make you want to cheer at the end.  “The Butler ” is one of them. 
            It’s based on a true story, though it does take some considerable liberties with it.  It seems there was this butler named Eugene Allen who served eight presidents over 34 years, from Truman to Reagan.  The movie re-names him Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), and decides to start with Eisenhower, in part to track the civil rights movement that corresponded with The Butler’s tenure at the White House.
            Eisenhower (played by Robin Williams) had his hands full trying to decide whether to intervene in the Central High School integration imbroglio in Little Rock , Arkansas .  Eisenhower is also shown, at the height of the crisis, sitting around painting flower landscapes.  Nothing about the rest of his tenure, including the important long-lasting infrastructure establishment of the interstate highway system.   
            As for JFK (played by James Marsden), it was more about the Addison’s disease and the backaches that had him lying on the floor, though JFK does tell Cecil that it was his brother Bobby who convinced him about the importance of civil rights.  Cecil is devastated by JFK’s assassination, believing that more societal progress would have been made had he not fallen to a sniper’s bullet, but then Martin Luther King’s assassination is even more devastating (and Bobby Kennedy’s isn’t even mentioned).
            The movie shows Cecil having a son who was active in the Civil Rights movement, which is actually not true, but it does allow the film to track some of those turbulent politics, going from peaceful sit-ins to MLK’s Gandhi-like leadership to militant Black Panthers.  All this time Cecil is shown as not supporting this “troublemaking,” which would almost make us unsympathetic to his character, except that the movie has Dr. King himself point out that being a butler is actually a potentially subversive role, because by appearing to be subservient but in fact displaying grace, dignity, and industriousness, the butler is effectively breaking down stereotypes.
            LBJ (Liev Schreiber) is depicted as a crass, gutter-talking country boy who intimidates staffers by barking orders from the throne (yes, that one), and got us into Vietnam .  In the movie, Cecil’s favorite, younger son (yes, there are echoes of the Prodigal Son parable in reverse here) loses his life in LBJ’sVietnam, and Cecil never gets over it (in real life, Mr. Allen’s only son did go to Vietnam , but returned safely).
            Nixon (John Cusack), not surprisingly, is played as a pitiable, shrewd, shrewish opportunist (it might take 100 years for him to be evaluated objectively), who invites Cecil to have a drink with him, but Cecil politely declines, while the audience vicariously delights in his reverse social snub.
            Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman, an Englishman) is depicted as adamantly opposing sanctions for South Africa over apartheid, and also, as an early indication of Alzheimer’s, handing Cecil money to go on a “secret mission” of philanthropy but “don’t tell Nancy .”  Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda), by the way, is shown inviting Cecil to a State Banquet not as a butler, but as a guest, which actually kind of messes with his head.  Afterwards it’s now harder for him to “put on” his butler persona, and the job loses its appeal for him, so he resigns.  He’s seen a lot of history.  And he’s made himself invisible in a lot of rooms where some very important conversation was taking place.  If you ever wanted to be the proverbial “fly on the wall”……
            But the real climactic moment is when Cecil gets to actively campaign for, and then actually meet, Barack Obama.
            Oprah Winfrey’s performance as Cecil’s wife, Gloria, is memorable. In fact, there are many strong secondary performances in this film, but really, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is about race.  We can all be glad how far we have come in this generation.  But, as evidenced by some recent gaffes by embarrassed public figures, we still have a long way to go.
 
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas