In Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Forest Whitaker (not pictured) plays Cecil Gaines, a character inspired by real-life White House butler Eugene Allen. In the film, long before Cecil steps foot in the Oval Office, he grows up on a plantation in Virginia where his parents (David Banner and Mariah Carey) tend the fields.
After leaving home to follow bigger dreams, young Cecil (Aml Ameen) gains valuable advice from an early mentor (Clarence Williams III).
In the film, the first president Cecil serves is Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams). In reality, Eugene Allen started his White House career with Harry Truman. The movie also skips over Allen’s stints under Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
According to Allen’s son Charles, the real-life butler didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, but he did break down after the assassination of JFK (played in the film by James Marsden). The next day, Jackie Kennedy (played here by Minka Kelly) gave Allen a tie worn by her late husband.
Of all the presidents featured in the movie, Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber) arguably gets the least favorable depiction for his crude conduct and use of the n-word.
There were a lot of attention-grabbing choices of actors to play famous politicians in The Butler, but John Cusack as Richard Nixon might be the oddest. When casting the presidents and their wives, Daniels gave consideration to big names out of necessity. ”We had to finance it through bringing in names that meant something overseas,” says the director. ”It’s a very sad testament that Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker can’t greenlight a film.”
In one of the most heartwarming scenes in the movie, Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda with Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan) extends an invitation to the 1986 State Dinner to Cecil. This happened to Allen, who ”became the first and only butler in the history of the White House to be invited to a State Dinner as an honored guest,” says journalist Wil Haygood, whose Washington Post article inspired the film.
According to Haygood, the photograph Allen displayed most prominently in his living room was one of he and his wife Helene with the Reagans.