Eugene Allen‘s wife, Helene, died the day before the US elections which saw Barack Obama claim his place at the first Arican American President. Eugene and his wife had been married for 65 years and had long been planning the day when they would vote together, for Obama. Eugene himself had enjoyed a long association with the White House, having worked there as a butler for 34 years and served eight presidents. His story was reported in an article entitled “A Butler Well Served by This Election” in The Washington Post in 2008. The piece inspired Danny Strong’s screenplay for ‘The Butler’, in which Eugene is represented by the fictional Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker).
The film features a number of highly rated actors, drawn from both sides of the pond, from Oprah Winfrey to Robin Williams, Jane Fonda to Alan Rickman (they were my favourite Presidential couple, as Ronald and Nancy Reagan), Vanessa Redgrave to Lenny Kravitz. This varied cast is indicative of the wide scope of the film.
There is no doubt that this was a great idea for a movie, but for me the realisation somehow missed the mark. As it moves through the decades, the film attempts to chronicle the main events in the American human rights movement – mainly through the active involvement of the butler’s own son. This story is interleaved with those of the butler’s own family life and also the histories of the successive presidents. It is too tall an order, too much to cram in to one film in any meaningful way. As a result, I found the film just skimmed across the surface, never really getting to grips with the issues. It was like watching someone panning across a huge vista with a pair of binoculars, but never focussing in. No-one gives a bad performance, but no-one is especially memorable.
In my humble opinion, the film-makers could have taken some hints from Forrest Gump, whose run through modern history is far more engaging than that of The Butler.