Cecil Gaines lived an astounding life. From a childhood in the cotton fields of the south in the 1920’s, Gaines became a butler at the White House and served Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan. During one of the most transitory periods in United States history, Gaines stood in the room, often, when the plight of Civil Rights activists was being debated. His own son was a Freedom Rider, arrested countless times for civil disobedience with Dr. King and other brave men and women struggling for equality. He served the Presidents that ordered our involvement in the Vietnam War before, during and after his other son fought and died in the conflict. As a child, he saw his father shot by a white man for objecting to that man’s rape of his mother. As an 89-year old man he saw Barack Obama become the first African-American President of the United States of America. His is a remarkable life. It would be, that is, if it were real.
Cecil Gaines is not a real person. The film is based on an article written by the Washington Post about the life of White House Butler Eugene Allen. I highly encourage everyone to read the piece “A Butler Well Served by the Election” by Wil Haygood. Eugene Allen absolutely served in The White House for 34 years and was a witness to history. He began at the White House during Harry Truman‘s second term in 1952 and left during Ronald Reagan’s second in 1986. Eight presidential administrations; he never missed a day of work. He broke barriers and by his quiet dignity in the everyday lives of most powerful people in the world, altered the course of history. He has one son who works as an investigator for the State Department. Eugene Allen lived a remarkable enough life that his story should have been told; his name should be remembered. For some reason this film thought Eugene Allen’s life not enough of an epic to bear his name and his legacy. That is something Mr. Allen would have never tolerated in his day at The White House. That is a disservice.
As a piece of fiction, the film is good, but not great. It’s filled with excellent performances from a cast brimming with the finest actors: Forrest Whitaker, Vanessa Redgrave, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams, Liev Schrieber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda (who plays Nancy Reagan in one of the most surreal actor-meets-role moments I’ve ever seen). It’s not a biography; it’s not a Civil Rights epic; it’s not a family drama. It tries to be all three over a period spanning eighty years and, as a result, everything is spread so thin that nothing that should gain weight and import, does. It spends as much time with the character of Louis Gaines, Cecil’s son who goes from being a Freedom Rider, to a Black Panther, to a United States Congressman, as it does with Cecil Gaines.
It’s difficult for me to evaluate it as a film, though. I wanted to look up Cecil Gaines and read more about him when I got home (largely because the film didn’t give me as much information as I wanted on his interaction with eight United States Presidents). I then found out about Eugene Allen. I read about his life. His REAL life. I wonder how many people will go the extra step and do that? I wonder how many people will remember his name rather than that of Cecil Gaines? I’ll remember Eugene Allen. I hope you will too.
7.0/10 as fiction
0/10 as historical record