Just three days after Barack Obama won the presidential election in 2008, The Washington Post ran a profile of Eugene Allen, a longtime White House butler who served every U.S. president from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan and inspired Lee Daniels’ The Butler (rated PG-13, out Aug. 16). ”I decided to find someone from the era of segregation who worked inside the White House,” says writer Wil Haygood, ”when such a thing as a black man in the Oval Office as president would have seemed inconceivable.”
Hours after the Post article hit stands, it caught the attention of Spider-Man producer Laura Ziskin, who made it one of her last passion projects before her death in 2011. Lee Daniels, who signed on to direct after Steven Spielberg passed, saw epic potential in the story of a boy from a Virginia plantation who came to serve in the White House for 34 years — and was even invited to a 1986 state dinner by Nancy Reagan. (He died in 2010.) ”This isn’t Monster’s Ball or Precious — this is a bigger thing,” says Daniels, whose name was added to the film’s title after Warner Bros. claimed rights to The Butler. ”It was sort of my black version of Forrest Gump.” The director lined up an attention-grabbing roster of stars, from Forest Whitaker as Allen (renamed Cecil Gaines in the film) to Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower, James Marsden as JFK, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Alan Rickman as Reagan, and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan.
At times, though, The Butler bears about as much resemblance to Allen’s real story as Cusack does to Nixon. Which is to say, not much. Allen and his wife, Helene (redubbed Gloria and played by Oprah Winfrey), had one son, Charles, but the movie gives them two: Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes an active participant in the ’60s civil rights movement, joining Selma sit-ins and the Black Panther Party, while the less rebellious Charlie (Elijah Kelley) serves his country in Vietnam. In fact, the real-life Charles Allen fought in Vietnam and was married to an active member of the Black Panthers. ”My father might have a problem with the direction the director and the screenwriter took it in, which is not exactly to the letter,” says Charles Allen, 67, adding that Cecil and Gloria have more explosive arguments in the movie than his parents ever did in life.
But Allen says the film captures the sweep of his father’s experience as an eyewitness to 20th-century history — as well as the dignity of Eugene Allen himself. ”Forest Whitaker nailed my father’s character,” he says. ”When I was on set, he’d look at me and give me a thumbs-up…. It got me choked up.”