What The Butler Really Saw

Forrest  Whittaker as  The Butler

Forrest Whittaker as The Butler

No Hollywood  studio was willing to take a chance on making the story called The Butler,  so Lee Daniels and Forrest Whittker decided to try and do it themselves. It took four years but they've got a hit film.  Lee Daniels' The Butler has been the top grossing film at the box office for two weeks in a row, bringing in more than $51 million.

Daniels' first film was 2001's Monsters Ball, a  riveting race-relations drama for which Halle Berry was awarded the Best Actress Oscar and by 2009 he was a household name with with Precious which garnered six Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best  Director.

His latest  film is based on the real-life story of Eugene Allen, an African American man who worked in the White House for 34 years and served as eyewitness to the most important social and political events in the 20th century, before retiring as head butler in 1986.

There's a lot of speculation as to how much of the movie is "real" and much is "made up". We have to start with the fact that Daniels was not making a documentary. He wanted to film a dramatic story, surrounded by real events, that would be entertaining and informative. He had a great subject.  In his tenure at the  White House Eugene Allen quietly witnessed eight presidents  make a series of monumental decisions impacting  civil rights in America.

For those who insist on knowing what's fact and what's fiction, Eliana Dockterm researched and reported the following on her web site on August 16th:

Allen grew up in a cotton field in Macon, Ga.

Ruling: Fiction

Allen was born on a Virginia plantation in 1919, not in Georgia. He arrived in Washington during the Great Depression. In the movie, Cecil Gaines grows up on a cotton field in Macon, Ga., where his family comes into conflict with the white farmers for whom they work. What befalls his parents on the cotton field was added for dramatic effect.

Allen had a wife and two kids
Ruling: Part fact, part fiction

Allen met his wife, Helene, at a birthday party in Washington. (He was too shy to ask for her number, so she had to track him down.) The couple had only one son, Charles Allen. In the movie, Gaines meets his wife, Gloria, at the Washington hotel where both work before Gaines gets his job at the White House. The fictional Gaines family has two sons.

Allen was recruited for the job as a butler after serving an administrator of the White House in a hotel restaurant
Ruling: Fiction

A woman told Allen of a job opening in the White House in 1952. He was not even looking for a job at the time, as he was happily employed at a Washington country club. He did not begin immediately as a butler but rather started as a pantry worker and was promoted to the position of butler later. He interviewed with the matre d’ Alonzo Fields for the job, who immediately liked Allen. In the film, a White House administrator, impressed with Gaines’ work at a D.C. hotel, immediately offers him the job. The matre d’ character, Freddie Fallows, initially does not like Gaines when he comes to the White House.

Allen received one of President John F. Kennedy’s ties from Jacqueline Kennedy after JFK died

Ruling: Fact

Like Gaines in the movie, Allen was working in the White House kitchen the day JFK was shot and received one of JFK’s ties as a gift from Mrs. Kennedy. He was also invited to Kennedy’s funeral after the assassination, but he volunteered to remain at the White House because someone had to serve attendees as they returned from the funeral service.

Allen’s son was a Black Panther and ran for office later in life
Ruling: Fiction

Though tension between father and son over civil rights issues fuels most of the drama in the film, Charles Allen was not the radical political activist that Gaines’s son is in the movie. Charles Allen worked as an investigator for the State Department and never ran for public office.

President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan invited Allen and his wife to a state dinner
Ruling: Fact

The Reagans did invite the couple to a state dinner for the West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Helene Allen was nervous because husbands and wives do not sit together for such events, and she didn’t know how to make small talk with so many college-educated people. Her son advised her to talk about her high school experience.

The Allens were Obama supporters
Ruling: Fact

Eugene and Helene both supported Barack Obama, but Helene died the day before Obama won the 2008 presidential election. The couple had been married 65 years. Allen received a VIP invitation to Obama’s inauguration and cried as he watched the ceremony.

Another interesting sidelight to the making of this film, is the list of 41 producers. Yes, I said "41".  Sometimes producers do a lot of work like finding a writer, hiring a director and having a say in casting. At other times, like this one, coming up with a lot of cash makes you a "producer".

Among the later, was Sheila Johnson, the second wealthiest black female in the United States  (Oprah is #1 - and she's in the movie). Ms Johnson co-founded Black Entertainment Television (BET) in 1979 and sold it to Viacom for $3 billion in 2002. She went around to her circle of friends and with a lot of hard work,  she and others raised the money to start the film.

I enjoyed Lee Daniels' The Butler. It's not a great film, but it's a good one and I think every kid from the age of 10 on up ought too see it so that they might grasp the importance of the civil right movement in our history. And it is very entertaining.

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