Epstein on 'The Butler'

"The Butler" Distorts Race Relations
Richard A. Epstein
Defining Ideas
August 20, 2013

Next year, this nation will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That occasion will rightly give rise to many reflections about how far this nation has come and where it will go in the future.

One early entrant into this dialogue is The Butlera new film by Lee Daniels. In the movie, Forest Whitaker plays the fictional butler Cecil Gaines, who worked for seven presidential administrations from Eisenhower to Reagan. The movie was inspired by the life of Eugene Allen, who did in fact serve in the White House between 1952 and 1986 under eight presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. Days after Barack Obama was elected president, an affectionate account of Allen’s service was written up by Wil Haygood in the Washington Post. But Allen’s story stands in stark contrast to the fictional Cecil Gaines’.

A Tale of Two Butlers

Born in 1919, Eugene Allen grew up in segregated Virginia, and slowly worked his way up the butler profession, largely without incident. Unlike the fictional Cecil Gaines, he did not watch the boss rape his mother on a Georgia farm, only to shoot a bullet through his father’s head as he starts to protest the incident, leading Cecil years later to escape his past for a better future.