Most movie trailers give away too much, so I tend to watch them after a movie—to relive its poignant moments—rather than before. That’s why I went to The Butler last night expecting to see an intimate, fairly accurate look at the life of an amazing man; a celebration of the person who served eight presidents in the White House and was virtually unknown until the Washington Post did an article on him.
The Butler, as I will call him in this article, was a real person (his real name being Eugene Allen), but it turns out that the movie doesn’t try too hard to be accurate with his story. In real life, for example, the man had only one son; in the movie he had two: one fought in Vietnam and the other—completely fabricated—became an activist.
I usually don’t like scripts that mess so much with the known facts, but I’m pondering this one. The movie uses the Butler to tell a bigger story: that of the civil rights movement. The Butler, as dramatized in the movie, experiences a ton of loss. I am happy to tell you that his real life did not include all those terrors, and, no, he was not informed on his birthday, right after his wife brought out the birthday cake, that his son was killed in the war. But maybe there’s a reason for piling up the pain on this one man. Scriptwriters know we can better understand anything from a simple concept to a entire era if there’s a human face to it. And here we are, in our comfy chairs with just two hours to understand a whole lot of suffering. The Butler helps us get it.
In the beginning of the movie, when the Butler is a young boy, his father tells him, “This is a white man’s world; we are just living in it.” The boy grows up and learns how to survive in such a world. He works hard, supports his family, and earns respect — from the presidents of the United States, no less. It’s an understatement to say his life is better than that of his parents.
But one of the Butler’s sons wants even more and choses the life of an activist. This scenario must be a reality in countless families coming out of oppression: parents advancing the cause through patient, respectable work, while the children won’t settle for such slow progress. The movie portrays the tension between father and son well, with amazing scenes that juxtapose the Butler’s delicate routines in the White House with his son’s dangerous encounters on the streets. We feel for the son who doesn’t understand that his father’s gentle march toward liberty allowed his children to grow up strong, healthy and ready for the next step. We also feel for the father who fails to understand that his son isn’t all much different than he; both suffer inside, both want a better world than that of their parents and both are incredibly courageous.
The acting of the main characters in this movie is stellar. The casting of the presidents is fun, although you can guess which ones are portrayed negatively, while one in particular has a glow around his head. That’s Hollywood. Most movies, we should all know by now, mess with the truth.
But in this case, there are deeper truths that make up for it: the painful truth, for starters, that evil and wretched injustice exists; but also the truth that courage, reconciliation, and love exist—and if you get to live as long as the Butler, you’re better inclined to see these greater truths prevail.