Quiconque veut être grand parmi vous, qu’il soit votre serviteur; et quiconque veut être le premier parmi vous, qu’il soit votre esclave. C’est ainsi que le Fils de l’homme est venu, non pour être servi, mais pour servir et donner sa vie comme la rançon de plusieurs. Jésus (Matthieu 20: 26-28)
il n’y a pas de travail insignifiant. Tout travail qui aide l’humanité a de la dignité et de l’importance. Il doit donc être entrepris avec une perfection qui ne recule pas devant la peine. Celui qui est appelé à être balayeur de rues doit balayer comme Michel-Ange peignait ou comme Beethoven composait, ou comme Shakespeare écrivait. Il doit balayer les rues si parfaitement que les hôtes des cieux et de la terre s’arrêteront pour dire : « Ici vécut un grand balayeur de rues qui fit bien son travail. Martin Luther King
Le domestique noir défie les stéréotypes raciaux en étant assidu et digne de confiance… bien que serviles, ils sont subversifs sans même le savoir. Martin Luther King Jr.
Le grand ennemi de la vérité n’est très souvent pas le mensonge – délibéré, artificiel et malhonnête – mais le mythe – persistant, persuasif et irréaliste. John Kennedy
Il n’aura même pas eu la satisfaction d’être tué pour les droits civiques. Il a fallu que ce soit un imbécile de petit communiste. Cela prive même sa mort de toute signification. Jackie Kennedy
It was people like Eugene and Helene Allen who helped build the black middle class in this country. And that is a big reason why I took this role. Oprah Winfrey
Ce qui était exceptionnel, c’était de faire un film sur une famille afro-américaine. Il y en a eu très peu. Je me souviens de Diahann Carroll dans Claudine (de John Berry) ou de Cicely Tyson dans Sounder (de Martin Ritt). Le reste, c’est mon histoire, c’est notre parcours . Lee Daniels
Devinez lequel des deux a grandi dans une Virginie sous le coup de la ségrégation, a pris un travail à la Maison-Blanche et est monté jusqu’au titre de maître d’hôtel, la plus haute position dans le service dédié à la Maison-Blanche? Devinez lequel menait une vie heureuse et paisible, et a été marié à la même femme pendant 65 ans? Et lequel avait un fils qui a honorablement servi au Vietnam et n’a jamais émis la moindre protestation durant l’ère pré- et post- droits civiques? Maintenant, devinez quel majordome a grandi dans une ferme de Géorgie, a vu son patron violer sa mère, puis son père s’élever contre ce viol, puis se faire tirer une balle dans la tête en réponse? Devinez quel majordome ressent si profondément la peine des injustices raciales de l’Amérique qu’il quitte son travail à la Maison-Blanche et rejoint son fils dans un mouvement de protestation? (…) La position de mon père sur la levée des sanctions sud-africaines dans les années 80 n’avait rien à voir avec la question strictement raciale. Il avait à faire avec la géopolitique de la guerre froide. Les faits n’ont pas d’importance pour les propagandistes créatifs de Hollywood. La vérité est trop compliquée et pas assez dramatique au goût des scénaristes, qui pensent en terme de minute, pas de contexte, quand il s’agit d’un conservateur. Contrairement à ce que les libéraux de Hollywood pensent, mon père ne voyait pas les gens en couleurs. Il les voyait en tant qu’individus américains. Michael Reagan
Les petits garçons et les petites filles américains s’assiéront ensemble dans n’importe quelle école – publique ou privée – sans aucune distinction de couleur. La ségrégation, la discrimination et le racisme n’ont pas leur place en Amérique. Vice President Richard Nixon (Campagne Eisenhower, octobre 1956)
No one should ever deny the senseless tragedies that dogged the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s, including the murders of Emmett Till in 1955, of Medgar Evers in 1963, of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner 1964, and of course, of Martin Luther King in 1968. But by 1986, the United States was a different place. The Butler’s negative reimagination comes at a real social cost. Watching the movie, the viewer comes away thinking that the civil rights movement has largely failed. But the actual record is more upbeat. It is unfortunate that Daniels did not start The Butler during the Truman years. In 1948, Truman decided to desegregate the U.S. armed forces by executive order. That action would have been unthinkable at the beginning of the Second World War, given the dominant southern presence in the military. Hence, the United States had the dubious distinction of fighting Hitler’s Germany and Tojo’s Japan with segregated armed forces. Perhaps an executive order is not cinematic stuff. But the same cannot be said of baseball’s racial integration in 1947, when a determined Branch Rickey brought Jackie Robinson up from a farm team in Montreal to the Brooklyn Dodgers. That story was the subject of 1950 movie and the more recent film 42 released this year. This transformative event was done, not through legislation, but voluntarily by one courageous man who took the risk that a major backlash might follow. Change was happening at the state level as well. In 1947, New Jersey abolished segregation by a state constitutional amendment. When these changes are executed voluntarily, they are less likely to face the massive resistance that followed the Supreme Court’s decision on racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, handed down in June 1954 and itself the culmination of a long campaign that first chopped away at segregation in railroad transportation and law school education. In time, of course, the cultural clash crystallized in the highly confrontational sit-ins that occupy much of the screen time in The Butler. It is these cases that led to the passage of Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which deals with access of all persons to public accommodations. Its basic command reads that all persons are entitled to ”the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin. Richard A. Epstein
Pourquoi les Démocrates feraient-ils l’impasse sur leur propre histoire entre 1848 et 1900 ? Peut-être parce que ce n’est pas le genre d’histoire des droits civiques dont ils veulent parler – peut-être parce que ce n’est pas le genre d’histoire de droits civiques qu’ils veulent avoir sur leur site Web. David Barton
How likely is it that the chief White House butler not only witnessed his mother raped and his father murdered by a plantation owner’s racist son but also had an intermittently estranged son of his own who became, first, one of the Fisk University student heroes of the Nashville lunch-counter sit-ins; second, one of the original Freedom Riders; third, so close an aide to King that he was in the Memphis motel room with Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, and Jesse Jackson when King was assassinated; fourth, a beret-wearing Black Panther in Oakland; fifth, an unsuccessful candidate for Congress; sixth, a leader of the South Africa divestment movement; and, seventh, a successful candidate for Congress? Hendrik Hertzberg
The Butler is fiction, although its audience may assume otherwise. Those cagey words “inspired by a true story” can be deceptive. The script was triggered by Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election.” Published after Obama’s landmark victory, and later spun into a book, it unearthed the story of former White House butler Eugene Allen, who served American presidents for 34 years. But screenwriter Danny Strong (HBO’s Game Change) has created a fictional butler named Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), whose life mirrors the drama of the civil rights movement with cut-glass symmetry. Straining to serve an overcharged agenda, The Butler is a broadly entertaining, bluntly inspirational history lesson wrapped around a family saga that gives new resonance to the term “domestic drama.” Director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy) is not known for subtlety, and this movie is no exception. But at the heart of its sprawling narrative, he has corralled some fine performances. Whitaker navigates gracefully between his public and private personae—White House butlers he says, have two faces: their own “and the ones we got to show the white man.” As Cecil stoically weathers the upheavals of history, and his splintered family, we can feel him being gradually crushed under the weight of his own quiet dignity, yet mustering shy increments of resistance over the decades. Between his role as a virtually mute servant/sage in the White House and a beleaguered patriarch trying to hold together his middle-class family, this a character with a lot on his plate. The story’s long march begins with Cecil’s boyhood on a cotton plantation in the South in 1926, where he sees his father shot dead in a field for looking the wrong way at a white man. Cecil is adopted by a thin-lipped matriarch who tells him, “I’m going to teach you how to be a house nigger.” Which sounds strange coming from the mouth of Vanessa Redgrave. The term “house nigger,” and the n-word in general, recurs again and again, shocking us each time, and never letting us forget that there’s no higher house than the White House. A model of shrewd obedience, Cecil learns to make the perfect martini, to be invisible in a room, and to overhear affairs of estate in stony silence—unless asked for his opinion, which he’ll pretend to offer with a wry, Delphic diplomacy that makes the questioner feel validated. The script goes out of its way to ennoble Cecil’s work, plucking a quote from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. —”the black domestic defies racial stereotyping by being hardworking and trustworthy … though subservient, they are subversive without even knowing it.” The Uncle Tom issue is front and centre, especially in Cecil’s feud with his radicalized son Louis (David Oyelowo), who rejects his father as a race traitor. The conflict comes to a head amid a family debate about the merits of Sidney Poitier, a legendary actor brashly dismissed by Louis as “a white man’s fantasy of what he wants us to be.” The fondly nostalgic references to In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner may fly over the heads of younger viewers. But it’s a lovely scene, mixing rancour and wit and a deft touch. Although this is a movie on a mission, it does have a sense of humour. When Cecil’s eldest son, shows up to dinner in his Black Panther beret and black leather, with a girlfriend sporting a vast Angela Davis Afro, it’s pure caricature as Daniels presents a whole other take on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, played as both drama and farce. Brian D. Johnson
The film opens with young Cecil in Macon, Georgia, in the 1920s, working in a cotton field alongside his father. His mother (Mariah Carey) is raped by a white plantation overseer, Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer), loud enough for everyone to hear. When Westfall returns, Cecil’s father shows his anger, and Westfall shoots him dead in front of Cecil and the other plantation workers. The plantation matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) then decides that Cecil should leave the fields to become a “house nigger” and learn to serve her family. Those appear to be the inventions of screenplay writer Danny Strong; they are never mentioned in Haygood’s piece.Eugene Allen was born in 1919, and, like Cecil, he grew up on a plantation (in Virginia, not Georgia). He, too, became a “house boy” for a white family. When he spoke to Haygood about his childhood, “There was nary a hint of bitterness in his voice about his upbringing.” Allen left the plantation in hopes of finding better work, as Cecil does—but unlike his fictional counterpart, he never broke into a hotel restaurant to steal food. (He did, however, land a job at a Virginia hotel as a waiter, as Cecil ultimately does in North Carolina.) Allen learned of a job at a country club in Washington, D.C., a fact that aligns with Cecil’s move to the nation’s capital. But their entries to the White House differ considerably: Allen learned via word of mouth that Alonzo Fields, a black maître d’ at the White House, was looking for pantry workers, and he went to talk to him. He began working there in 1952, during the Truman administration, but didn’t get promoted to butler until several years later. In the movie, the White House calls Gaines after a white senior staffer witnesses Cecil in action at the D.C. hotel—a point Cecil, in voiceover, emphasizes proudly. Aisha Harris
Attention: une subversion peut en cacher une autre !
Comment devant l’histoire de ce « nègre de maison » qui finit majordome de la Maison-Blanche et qui, pendant 34 ans et de Truman à Reagan, servit huit présidents …
Et malgré l’invraisemblable accumulation, sans parler des contre-vérités anti-républicaines, de péripéties à la Forrest Gump et de stars de la pop ou d’Hollywood que se sent obligé de lui adjoindre le film de Lee Daniels …
Comme le véritable accident industriel que s’est révélé être l’arrivée du premier président noir à la Maison Blanche ….
Ne pas repenser à ces milliers de pères et mères de famille sans lesquels il n’y aurait pas de classe moyenne noire aujourd’hui aux Etats-Unis …
Ceux dont Martin Luther King évoquait la dignité et l’importance …
Comme celle du balayeur de rues qui « balaye comme Michel-Ange » …
Ou du domestique noir qui par sa servilité même devient « subversif sans même le savoir » …
Mais surtout à cette ultime subversion à laquelle avait appelé le Christ …
A savoir celle de la grandeur du service et du don de soi ?
Brian D. Johnson
August 16, 2013
This is turning out to be an exceptional year for black filmmakers mining true stories of race and violence in America. Last month saw the release of Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, an explosive drama about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man who was shot dead by police while handcuffed in an Oakand subway station on New Year’s Day in 2009. At next month’s Toronto International Film Festival, one of the most hotly anticipated premieres is Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, about Solomon Northrup, a free-born African American who was kidnapped in 1841, sold into slavery, and rescued by a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt). And opening this week is Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a star-studded epic inspired by the life of a dedicated butler who served under eight presidents in the White House while the civil rights movement raged outside its walls.
Unlike the other two movies, The Butler is fiction, although its audience may assume otherwise. Those cagey words “inspired by a true story” can be deceptive. The script was triggered by Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election.” Published after Obama’s landmark victory, and later spun into a book, it unearthed the story of former White House butler Eugene Allen, who served American presidents for 34 years. But screenwriter Danny Strong (HBO’s Game Change) has created a fictional butler named Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), whose life mirrors the drama of the civil rights movement with cut-glass symmetry.
Straining to serve an overcharged agenda, The Butler is a broadly entertaining, bluntly inspirational history lesson wrapped around a family saga that gives new resonance to the term “domestic drama.” Director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy) is not known for subtlety, and this movie is no exception. But at the heart of its sprawling narrative, he has corralled some fine performances. Whitaker navigates gracefully between his public and private personae—White House butlers he says, have two faces: their own “and the ones we got to show the white man.” As Cecil stoically weathers the upheavals of history, and his splintered family, we can feel him being gradually crushed under the weight of his own quiet dignity, yet mustering shy increments of resistance over the decades. Between his role as a virtually mute servant/sage in the White House and a beleaguered patriarch trying to hold together his middle-class family, this a character with a lot on his plate. The real surprise is Oprah Winfrey, who’s blessed with a juicy, freewheeling role, and shows once and for all she can really act, stealing every scene with a saucy gravitas, if there can be such a thing. With a performance that’s charismatic yet deeply grounded, she sails through a character arc that ranges from drunken feints at infidelity to ferocious loyalty—undercut with droll asides that are impeccably timed.
The story’s long march begins with Cecil’s boyhood on a cotton plantation in the South in 1926, where he sees his father shot dead in a field for looking the wrong way at a white man. Cecil is adopted by a thin-lipped matriarch who tells him, “I’m going to teach you how to be a house nigger.” Which sounds strange coming from the mouth of Vanessa Redgrave. The term “house nigger,” and the n-word in general, recurs again and again, shocking us each time, and never letting us forget that there’s no higher house than the White House.
A model of shrewd obedience, Cecil learns to make the perfect martini, to be invisible in a room, and to overhear affairs of estate in stony silence—unless asked for his opinion, which he’ll pretend to offer with a wry, Delphic diplomacy that makes the questioner feel validated. The script goes out of its way to ennoble Cecil’s work, plucking a quote from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. —”the black domestic defies racial stereotyping by being hardworking and trustworthy … though subservient, they are subversive without even knowing it.”
The Uncle Tom issue is front and centre, especially in Cecil’s feud with his radicalized son Louis (David Oyelowo), who rejects his father as a race traitor. The conflict comes to a head amid a family debate about the merits of Sidney Poitier, a legendary actor brashly dismissed by Louis as “a white man’s fantasy of what he wants us to be.” The fondly nostalgic references to In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner may fly over the heads of younger viewers. But it’s a lovely scene, mixing rancour and wit and a deft touch. Although this is a movie on a mission, it does have a sense of humour. When Cecil’s eldest son, shows up to dinner in his Black Panther beret and black leather, with a girlfriend sporting a vast Angela Davis Afro, it’s pure caricature as Daniels presents a whole other take on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, played as both drama and farce.
The story is a bit of a slog. It unfolds against a parade of presidents that amounts to a clumsy sideshow of cameos. Some are dismal, beginning with a ludicrous incarnation of Dwight D. Eisenhower by Robin Williams desperately trying not to look like Robin Williams. John Cusack’s Nixon is a bad joke. James Marsden’s John F. Kennedy is too young and callow—JFK as just another pretty face. But Liev Schreiber throws some mustard on a snappy portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson. And an almost unrecognizable Allan Rickman creates a masterful Ronald Reagan, complemented by Jane Fonda’s brief, brilliant turn as Nancy. First The Newsroom, now this; Hanoi Jane has grown up to be an expert at playing ballsy Republican grand dames.
Despite the film’s shortcomings, it does its job. The tragic events of America’s race war, no matter how schematically presented, burn through the narrative with potency. Intercutting horrific scenes of bigots disrupting a lunch counter protest in the South with shots of a black butlers setting fine china for a White House dinner may be contrived, but they’re brutally effective.
With his hit-and-miss direction, it’s as if Daniels is the movie’s ultimate butler, juggling an overloaded tray as he tries to serve all sides of history at once. He’s most assured in the scenes of Cecil’s extended family, which swing from rollicking banter to bitter conflict, and least comfortable in his role as history teacher. Every so often I kept wishing Spike Lee were behind the camera, cutting through clichés. Though The Butler‘s tidy sentiments can be cloying, it’s hard to remain unmoved—and unimpressed by the stubbornly authentic performances by Whitaker and Oprah, which will likely be remembered at Oscar time.
16 Aug 2013
The new political drama Lee Daniels’ The Butler takes its cues from a Washington Post article about a black servant named Eugene Allen who worked in eight presidential administrations.
That part of the story is essentially unchanged. The rest of the film, a movie stuffed with politics, historical re-creations and presidential imitations, is rife with inaccuracies that should be corrected.
Note: Some story spoilers ahead …
President Ronald Reagan was indifferent to the suffering of people of color. Breitbart News reported this week that Reagan biographer Craig Shirley shredded this notion by detailing the president’s legislative achievements and personal outtreach to his black peers.
The Democrats helped pass the Civil Rights Act: This is more of an inaccuracy by omission. The film showcases how both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson rallied on behalf of civil rights, but what’s left out is the voting record on the historic Civil Rights Act. Turns out « 80 percent of the “no” votes in the Senate came from Democrats, including the late Robert Byrd (W.Va.) and Albert Gore (Tenn.), father of the future vice president, » so Republicans teamed up with President Johnson to pass the legislation.
President Nixon dismissed black Americans–save for their votes: The film shows Nixon (John Cusack) promoting his upcoming election battle with John F. Kennedy by giving campaign buttons to the butler and his fellow black servers. Later, Nixon talks up black enterprise but only with an eye on winning votes. Moviefone.com notes Nixon’s record on school integration outpaced his predecessors, and Allen has spoken fondly of Nixon in press interviews.
The Butler disliked President Reagan: The real Eugene Allen has expressed affection for all the presidents he served, noting he voted for each when they were inhabiting the White House. A framed picture of the Reagans was displayed on Allen’s living room wall, and he noted that Nancy Reagan gave him a warm hug when he finally retired. Hardly sounds like the character in the movie, played by Forest Whitaker, who appeared to be fed up with the Reagans and quit for that very reason.
The Butler met Obama: The film uses a framing device of the titular Butler waiting to meet personally with President Barack Obama. There’s no official record of such a meeting, although Allen was a VIP guest at Obama’s swearing in.
Extra: Screenwriter Danny Strong (Game Change) took tremendous liberties with Allen’s life beyond the name change to Cecil Gaines. Strong gave the butler two sons, not one, made the main character’s wife (Oprah Winfrey) a heavy drinker and fictionalized much of his life story prior to entering the White House.
Richard A. Epstein
August 20, 2013
The film’s retelling of history comes at a real social cost.
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 Butler, a 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.
Instead, over a period of years, Allen rose from a “pantry man” to the highest position in White House service, Maître d’hôtel. His life was marked by quiet distinction and personal happiness. He was married to the same woman, Helene, for 65 years. He had one son, Charles, who served in Vietnam. During the Reagan years, Nancy Reagan invited Allen and his wife to a state dinner as guests. When he retired shortly afterwards, “President Reagan wrote him a sweet note. Nancy Reagan hugged him, tight,” according to the story in the Washington Post. During service, he never said a word of criticism about any president. Nor was his resignation an act of political protest.
The fictional Cecil, however, does not come to the White House under Truman, but arrives in 1957, just in time for one of the defining events of the civil rights movement—namely, President Eisenhower’s reluctant but firm decision to move federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, after Orval Faubus quite literally barred the school room door.
In general, the movie is full of hype. Cecil’s wholly fictional older son Louis gets involved in the civil rights movement from the time of the sit-ins through the rise of the Black Panther movement, and a younger brother, who professes pride in his country pays the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam. Cecil’s wife, Gloria, falls prey to alcoholism and a time has a shabby affair with the guy next door. Gaines’ service is marked by quiet frustration, knowing that black workers suffered a 40 percent wage deficit that lasted under the Reagan years, while being excluded from well-deserved promotions. When the weight of these injustices hit him, Cecil resigns to join his son Louis in a protest movement. When Slate’s, Aisha Harris was asked “How True is The Butler?” her candid answer was “not much.”.
The Dangers of Docudrama
Why is Lee Daniels not content to tell the real story? The obvious answer is that his version makes for a better movie. Another explanation is that his tale is more downbeat so that it can belittle some of the progress that the civil rights movement has made over this time.
No one should ever deny the senseless tragedies that dogged the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s, including the murders of Emmett Till in 1955, of Medgar Evers in 1963,
of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner 1964, and of course, of Martin Luther King in 1968. But by 1986, the United States was a different place.
The Butler’s negative reimagination comes at a real social cost. Watching the movie, the viewer comes away thinking that the civil rights movement has largely failed. But the actual record is more upbeat. It is unfortunate that Daniels did not start The Butler during the Truman years. In 1948, Truman decided to desegregate the U.S. armed forces by executive order.
That action would have been unthinkable at the beginning of the Second World War, given the dominant southern presence in the military. Hence, the United States had the dubious distinction of fighting Hitler’s Germany and Tojo’s Japan with segregated armed forces.
Perhaps an executive order is not cinematic stuff. But the same cannot be said of baseball’s racial integration in 1947, when a determined Branch Rickey brought Jackie Robinson up from a farm team in Montreal to the Brooklyn Dodgers. That story was the subject of 1950 movie and the more recent film 42 released this year. This transformative event was done, not through legislation, but voluntarily by one courageous man who took the risk that a major backlash might follow.
Change was happening at the state level as well. In 1947, New Jersey abolished segregation by a state constitutional amendment. When these changes are executed voluntarily, they are less likely to face the massive resistance that followed the Supreme Court’s decision on racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, handed down in June 1954 and itself the culmination of a long campaign that first chopped away at segregation in railroad transportation and law school education.
Sit-Ins and Public Accommodations
In time, of course, the cultural clash crystallized in the highly confrontational sit-ins that occupy much of the screen time in The Butler. It is these cases that led to the passage of Title II of the
1964 Civil Rights Act, which deals with access of all persons to public accommodations.
Its basic command reads that all persons are entitled to ”the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.”
To most people, the argument in favor of this section is easy enough to understand. These rights are basic entitlements of citizens, and die-hard segregationists abridged them. The sustained moral indignation directed to segregationists in the movie is deserved. But some of the long-term legal implications of Title II of the CRA are more difficult to unpack.
My take runs as follows. In general it is a mistake for any government law to require one private person to do business with another against his will: the principle of freedom of organization is fundamental to a just society. The major counterweight to that, on classical liberal theory, is in cases of monopoly, which meant in bygone days railroads and inns on isolated roads.
At first blush, there are no such monopolies in luncheon counters. Standard neoclassical economics predicts that some firms will cater to African American clientele if others choose to shun them. To that confident prediction, the obvious reply was, that just didn’t happen. It is at this point that the true horror of southern system of segregation becomes clear. The old south was a closed society, which did not allow for the free entry of these competitive firms that would have transformed its culture.
It had two means of enforcement: (1) Private violence backed by a police force that either turned a blind eye to private force, or openly backed it, and (2) state regulatory bodies that could use their power over public utilities like power and light to punish those firms that broke the color line.
A solution to this problem neutralizes these two forces and then lets entry do its work. But in a federal system, it is hard for the central government to use its limited powers to exert so fundamental a change. The bottom line, therefore, is either to impose the duty from without or watch the system of southern dominance chew up its citizens by propping up the status quo ante.
The question then arises of how best to change the system. As a rhetorical matter, the only path that works is an appeal to fundamental rights. No argument about institutional imperfections could put the public accommodation provisions over the top. Indeed, it is worthy to note that the national businesses subject to these regulations often begged for federal intervention under Title II as a means to neutralize local pressures that kept them from integrating. Indeed, the success of Title II has been so great that the provision enforces itself, so that direct regulation and private litigation occupy only a tiny corner of that world.
Nonetheless, the flawed conceptual arguments for Title II did create serious complications in others areas. The parallels to private housing and to employment are not nearly so easy to draw. In the early years, the insistence on color-blind employment relations actually had the unfortunate effect of limiting private affirmative action programs when businesses and unions came, rightly in my view, to see these as social imperatives in the aftermath of the violence of the 1960s. On the other side, the constant use of disparate impact tests in education, housing, and employment led to an overreach by the new civil rights establishment of today.
My quarrel with The Butler is that its wrong narrative of the evolution of race relations serves to strengthen a set of misguided government programs at a time when it is no longer possible to bless all actions of the civil rights movement.
Richard A. Epstein, the Peter and Kirsten Bedford Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law, New York University Law School, and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago. His areas of expertise include constitutional law, intellectual property, and property rights. His most recent books are Design for Liberty: Private Property, Public Administration, and the Rule of Law (2011), The Case against the Employee
Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey shine in a clunky but powerful yarn about race and American history
Aug 15, 2013
There’s a scene about midway through “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” – an ungainly title for an ungainly picture – that captures many of the movie’s contradictions, and its surprising power. It’s 1968, and Martin Luther King Jr. (Nelsan Ellis) is discussing the Vietnam War with some of his closest aides and friends. “How many of your parents support the war?” he asks this group of African-American men. Almost all of them raise their hands. King then asks Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo), a young man sitting next to him, what his father does for a living. “My father’s a butler,” Louis says, not without embarrassment. He doesn’t tell King that his father, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), is a butler at the White House, and was almost certainly in the room during King’s historic meeting with Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office.
Black domestic workers, King tells Louis, have played an important role in the struggle for civil rights. At first Louis assumes this is meant as mockery, but King presses on. Maids, butlers, nannies and other domestics have defied racist stereotypes by being trustworthy, hardworking and loyal, King says; in maintaining other people’s households and raising other people’s children, they have gradually broken down hardened and hateful attitudes. Their apparent subservience is also quietly subversive. This poignant and humbling recognition of the sacrifices made by millions of African-Americans who appeared to have no voice is an important turning point for Louis, in his consideration of his father’s life, but it also captures King’s extraordinary philosophical depth in a few moments. In case there isn’t enough going on in that scene, let us note that it takes place in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Minutes or hours later, the great civil rights leader will step outside onto the balcony and be shot dead.
I’d be hard-pressed to describe “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” as a good movie. It’s programmatic, didactic and shamelessly melodramatic. (Danny Strong’s screenplay is best viewed as fictional, although it’s loosely based on the true story of longtime White House butler Eugene Allen, who died in 2010.) Characters constantly have expository conversations built around historical markers, from the murder of Emmett Till to the Voting Rights Act. Every time Cecil serves coffee in the Oval Office, he stumbles upon epoch-making moments: Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams) debating whether to send federal troops to desegregate the schools in Little Rock; Richard Nixon (John Cusack) plotting a black entrepreneurship program to undercut the Black Panthers; or Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) telling Republican senators he plans to defy Congress and veto sanctions against South Africa. Cecil and Louis, the warring father and son played by Whitaker and Oyelowo, might as well come with labels: Cecil is following in the footsteps of Booker T. Washington; Louis in those of W.E.B. Du Bois.
But “The Butler” is indisputably an important film and a necessary one, arriving at the end of the summer of Paula Deen and George Zimmerman and the Detroit bankruptcy, a summer that has vividly reminded us that if America’s ancient racial wounds have faded somewhat, they have never healed. For a black filmmaker to tell this fraught and complicated story now, in a mainstream picture with an all-star cast, is significant all on its own. Faulkner’s observation that the past is never dead and isn’t even past has come to sound trite through endless repetition by politicians and journalists, but it speaks to our country in 2013, and to the impact of this movie. And before I wander too far afield, “The Butler” is also a showcase for numerous terrific black actors, including Whitaker, Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz, not to mention a fiery and sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated supporting role for Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s wife, Gloria.
For someone of my generation, the civil rights movement may seem like an overly familiar pop-culture topic. But it’s been more than 20 years since “Malcolm X,” “Mississippi Burning” and “The Long Walk Home,” and closer to 40 years since groundbreaking TV specials like “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” or the miniseries “King.” Much of the sweep of history in “The Butler,” which begins in the Jim Crow Deep South of the 1920s and ends with a black man in the White House, may seem like a dim, black-and-white flicker to many younger Americans.
Daniels, previously the director of “Precious” and “The Paperboy” (forever famous as the movie in which Nicole Kidman pees all over Zac Efron), may not be a subtle storyteller, but he delivers big, emotional moments with considerable force. He makes the impact of the Kennedy and King assassinations seem real and present by focusing on individuals and details – Cecil, trying to comfort a sobbing, blood-spattered Jackie Kennedy (Minka Kelly) – and his re-creation of the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins of 1960, or the Birmingham street scenes when dogs and fire hoses were turned on marchers, possess a startling violence and freshness. In a time when a dominant current in American conservatism is dedicated to erasing both history and science, to insisting that “there are no lessons in the past,” it’s useful to be reminded how much about contemporary American life is shaped and conditioned by those events.
Daniels performs another public service by turning the well-meaning condescension of “The Help” upside down and telling the story of a black domestic worker and his family entirely from their point of view, with minor supporting characters that include five United States presidents. (Cecil also served under Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, but they’re only seen in news footage.) The parade of famous white actors playing White House occupants is bizarre and almost arbitrary – Cusack looks nothing like Nixon, although James Marsden is well cast as JFK and Liev Schreiber makes a surprisingly good Johnson – but that’s a sideshow attraction. (Daniels understands precisely how he’s twisting the knife with Jane Fonda’s cameo as Nancy Reagan, by the way.) The main event is a terrific cast of African-American principals, headlined by the immensely dignified performance of Whitaker, playing a man who has raised himself by his own wits and almost Nietzschean willpower from the brutal cotton fields of Georgia to the corridors of power.
As a boy, Cecil witnesses his mother raped and his father murdered by a white overseer, and that’s the background his son – raised in the polite, formal segregation of 1950s Washington – can never understand. Then the overseer’s guilt-ridden mother (Vanessa Redgrave) takes Cecil in and trains him as a “house nigger,” a polite, well-dressed automaton who is almost invisible and virtually silent. (I quote that offensive expression because it’s important and recurs several times.) The instruction delivered to Cecil over and over, including at the White House, is that he sees and hears nothing, and that a room should feel empty when he is in it. Whatever Daniels’ flaws as a filmmaker may be, in all his movies he’s acutely sensitive to the possibilities of human communication, even in impossible situations. Redgrave’s character clearly feels for Cecil and gives him what little she can; in her own way, she too is a victim of the system that has destroyed his family.
Over the years, Cecil makes his way from Georgia to North Carolina to a luxury hotel in Washington and finally to the segregated service staff of the White House. (Implausibly enough, it was Ronald Reagan, a font of old-school racist policy and personal generosity, who finally insisted on equal treatment for black employees.) He learns the intricacies of wine and whiskey, builds up an autodidact’s vocabulary and masters the fine art of being charming without appearing confrontational. Every black person in this line of work (Cecil observes in voice-over) has two faces, of necessity – one for his white employers and clientele, one for his family and friends. Whitaker plays Cecil as a man making a long, lonely trek uphill with a heavy load on his back, and the film’s other black characters all deal with life under a racist system in their own way.
Cecil’s friend Howard (Terrence Howard) is a good-time Charlie and numbers runner; Cecil’s colleagues at the White House include foulmouthed ladies’ man Carter (Gooding) and educated, upward-bound James (Kravitz). I suppose Winfrey is customarily too busy playing her own public persona to play dramatic roles, but she’s damn good at it; the proud, angry, boozing, cheating and ultimately ferociously loyal Gloria has a vivid and very non-Oprah reality about her. If Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong intend the tension between Cecil’s bootstraps assimilationism and Louis’ Freedom Rider-turned-Panther radicalism to be the movie’s central driving force, it doesn’t quite work. In a picture driven by a vibrant portrayal of African-American life and the visceral, explosive force of history, their opposed and intersecting character arcs feel overly constructed.
Daniels’ point, of course, echoes what King tells Louis: The traditions of Du Bois and Washington, of self-sacrifice and hard work on one hand, and street protest and political organizing on the other, are not as distinct or disconnected as they may appear. Both have driven a history that isn’t finished yet. While the election of Barack Obama serves as the culmination of this story — and for African-Americans of Cecil Gaines’ generation it was an unimaginable, even millennial victory – in the larger story of America it was an unexpected plot twist whose true consequences remain unknown. One hundred and fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln asked whether a country conceived in liberty and dedicated to equality would work out, and we still don’t know. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is big, brave, crude and contradictory, very bad in places and very good in others, and every American should see it.
The Globe and Mail
Aug. 16 2013
Two new inspirational movies, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Jobs, are the kind of unsophisticated biographical films that don’t earn much critical respect but occasionally rack up Oscar nominations. They belong in what Dennis Bingham, author of Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre, calls “a respectable genre of very low repute.” Both movies trip over the usual bio-hazards – gratuitous montages, speechifying characters and plots with historical incidents layered between private crises – but they play out in very different ways.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler (the director’s name was imposed after a legal dispute forbid the use of The Butler) stars Forest Whitaker as a long-serving White House butler during a turbulent period. The film has a lot of momentum thanks to a star-studded ensemble cast, including Whitaker in the titular role and Oprah Winfrey in her first big-screen role in 15 years. The filmmakers claim that The Butler was inspired by the late Eugene Allen, a White House employee who worked for presidents from Truman to Reagan and lived to see the first black president. But Allen’s story has little to do with The Butler’s script, a Forrest Gump-like tale of a servant who was a front-row witness to modern civil-rights history. The butler’s name has been changed to Cecil Gaines.
As a filmmaker, Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy) likes things pulpy, and you quickly get the sense that he can’t restrict himself to the Masterpiece Theatre model here. The Butler starts with an entirely fabricated sequence, straight out of a Blaxploitation movie, in which pre-teen Cecil witnesses his mother’s rape and his father’s murder. The killer’s mom (Vanessa Redgrave) takes the boy into her house, where he learns to serve and shut up. Eventually, Cecil (played by a slim and convincingly youthful Whitaker) marries Gloria (Winfrey) and has two sons before being hired at the White House. Though he’s instructed to see and hear nothing, he is invariably hovering over the shoulder of one president or another during critical historical moments.
Screenwriter Danny Strong, who wrote the sharp television satire of the Sarah Palin campaign, Game Change, offers the usual biographical double strands of the character’s public and private roles. One of Cecil and Gloria’s improbable friends is Howard (Terrence Howard), a layabout numbers-runner with a missing front tooth and a yen for Gloria. Gloria turns to drink and adultery when Cecil puts the president’s needs before his wife’s, which provides Oprah with some juicy scenes. The couple also has two opposite-minded sons. Louis (David Oyelowo), under the influence of his groovy college girlfriend Carol (Yaya Alafia), joins the wave of northern students who pushed for desegregation in the south in 1961. Little brother Charlie (Elijah Kelley), meanwhile, signs up for duty in Vietnam.
By contrast, the White House feels like comic relief, with a parade of presidential caricatures: pensive Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams), who ponders sending federal troops to enforce school integration while painting flowers; awkward vice-president Richard Nixon (John Cusack), found in the kitchen scrounging for snacks; bumptious Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber), who bellows instructions to his cabinet while seated on the toilet; and folksy Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman), whose smoothly controlling wife Nancy is played by former lefty activist Jane Fonda.
Some of this is fun if heavy-handed, but from time to time Daniels’ broad approach hits home emotionally, particularly a scene that contrasts preparations for a White House state dinner with black students being spat upon and cursed for sitting on the white side of a segregated Woolworth’s counter. The Butler may be a sanctimonious cartoon, but it points to events in the civil rights struggle that were as grotesque and extraordinary as any fiction can invent.
All-star parade of presidents helps blunt any dramatic edge in Lee Daniels film starring Forest Whitaker as the protagonist
9 August 2013
More historical pageant than drama, Lee Daniels’ The Butler takes the Forrest Gump approach to another corner of American history, filtering the dramatic civil rights movement of the 1960s through the life of an ordinary butler who served seven different presidents from Dwight D Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan. Based very loosely on a real man, The Butler sets its mild-mannered protagonist Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) in sharp contrast to his son Louis (David Oyelowo), a Freedom Rider and eventually Black Panther who conveniently finds himself at the centre of a series of civil rights landmark moments.
Production year: 2013
Directors: Lee Daniels
Cast: David Oyelowo, Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey
There are fascinating wrinkles to be found in that relationship, and director Daniels does stumble upon a few. But for the most part his usual heavy hand draws only the thickest lines between two generations of African-Americans, and Danny Strong’s script muddles the family story with too many « significant » encounters between Cecil and his presidential employers. It’s impossible not to be distracted when Robin Williams appears in a bald cap as Eisenhower, or Liev Schreiber blusters his way across the screen as a noisy Lyndon Johnson. When John Cusack shows up as a flop-sweating Richard Nixon, the film is playing dress-up and passing it as history. By the time Jane Fonda eerily transforms herself into Nancy Reagan, the film itself seems in on the joke.
If it’s possible to look past Daniels’ directorial flourishes, The Butler does occasionally muster its own power, contrasting Cecil’s work at a White House state dinner with Louis’s beating by the police after a protest, or the riot that broke out in Washington DC after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Aware that he has a good job that provides for his family, Cecil is unwilling to rock the boat politically, which leads to clashes with his son but an otherwise passive performance for Whitaker. Oprah Winfrey, channelling Elizabeth Taylor’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? performance as Cecil’s hard-drinking wife, has more to play with but literally nowhere to go, her scenes almost exclusively limited to their airless, modest home.
The quick glimpses into the lives of middle-class African-Americans in this time of massive social upheaval – the house parties, the front porch conversations – are evocative and frequently charming, but The Butler is trying to cover way too much ground to get into that, or anything, to any real satisfaction.
With an ensemble and a story this large casting often substitutes for characterisation – Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz are Cecil’s amiable White House co-workers, Vanessa Redgrave is the kindly owner of the farm where Cecil grew up, Mariah Carey is his loving mother, and so on. James Marsden comports himself well as JFK, and Alan Rickman makes for a spot-on Ronald Reagan, but the string of presidential cameos also gives the film its numbing structure. Over and over again the leaders ask Cecil a pointed civil rights-related question and seem inspired by his humble, wholly uninteresting presence. Cecil Gaines is a witness to important historical events but a participant in none of them, and at times even Daniels seems to wish he were making a film entirely about the Freedom Riders or Black Panthers (Oyelowo’s fiery performance makes that draw even stronger).
A great film about the American civil rights movement is way overdue. The Butler, overwhelmed by flash and good intentions, doesn’t even come close.
This summer Oscar nominated director, Lee Daniels and an all-star cast of actors including Oscar winners, Forrest Whitaker and Cuba Gooding, Jr., will release the highly anticipated major motion picture, “The Butler”. The film will present a portrayal of a man, Eugene Allen, who served eight U.S. presidents over 35 years as a White House butler.
iRock Jazz was granted an exclusive interview with author and journalist, Wil Haygood, the writer of the 2008 Washington Post article, “A Butler Well Served by This Election” which sparked the initial interest in Eugene Allen’s story. Days after the article – a vivid chronicle by Haygood of Eugene Allen’s life in the historical context of the long and complex relationship between African-Americans and the White House – was published the story went viral. The article was later reposted in the Los Angeles Times and shortly thereafter, nearly 15 Hollywood actors and producers reached out to Haygood hoping to secure a movie deal. Four and a half years later, “The Butler” will share with the world one of the unsung champions of history.
Speaking to Haygood, a prolific biographer, having written celebrated texts on Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Sugar Ray Robinson, and Sammy Davis, Jr., you get the sense that Eugene Allen’s story may be Haygood’s masterwork, an assertion not solely based upon the brilliant content of the article or Haygood’s adept journalistic rectitude, but the striking parallels that weave Allen and Haygood together. Both men, gracious and professional, proud and persevering, fully committed to their vocation, and in the face of worldwide attention are remarkably humble.
Haygood’s two year immersion into Allen’s life strengthens his confidence that his story has the elements to resonate on the big screen. To Haygood, Allen is nothing short of an American hero whose life plays out like a movie and whose story deserves to be told. “It had the stuff of drama, the stuff of cinema – this one man that was in the white house for eight presidents. It’s almost like a novel, but it’s a real story. It really happened. Now he has a movie about his life. His life is important enough to be on the big screen. It’s really pretty magical,” exclaimed Haygood.
However, the life of Eugene Allen may not fit the standard mold of the blockbuster Hollywood biopic. While the sweeping grandeur of riveting cinematography, a gripping screenplay, and a lush emotion evoking score can serve as a recipe to garnering box office success, audience’s appetites are often whet with the star power of larger than life historical figures whose name and life are more recognizable throughout popular culture. So, why is the story of Eugene Allen noteworthy? Why make a film about his life? Why would Lenny Kravitz, after reading the script, cancel his European tour for a role in the movie? Why would Oprah Winfrey appear in this film after a 15 year hiatus? Eugene Allen did not break the color barrier on the baseball field or shake up the world in the boxing ring. He didn’t liberate a people from the shackles of slavery with the stroke of a pen or revolutionize the world through music or technology. Eugene Allen, a butler, a humble man from Virginia, is not a mainstay in history books, but he was an eye-witness to history for over three decades from a significant vantage point – 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – the most powerful address in the world.
Retired for over twenty years before receiving Haygood’s call, Allen and his wife Helene lived according to Haygood in a, “Very modest house, small, on a quiet street, here, in northwest Washington D.C.”. Haygood would soon discover that the stories Allen held within him were just as rich as the treasure that lay beneath the Allen residence floors. Haywood describes the scene as he enters the Allen’s basement, “There were pictures of him and Harry Truman, him and President Eisenhower, him and President Kennedy, him and the Kennedy children, him and Duke Ellington when Duke Ellington visited the White House, him and Sarah Vaughn, him and Frank Sinatra. I almost started spinning on a top. It was like finding this unknown man and his life that nobody had written about.”
It is possible nobody had written about Eugene Allen for the same reasons the date January 20th came and went sixteen times, through ten U.S. presidents for nearly 60 years before President Barack Obama invited Allen to attend his first Presidential Inauguration in 2008. In 1986, Allen made history as the first White House butler to be invited as a guest to a Presidential State Dinner, a tribute bestowed upon him by President Ronald and First Lady Nancy Reagan. He took the moment so serious that a picture of he and his wife at the event is the only White House photo in the front room of their home. Yet, there was a time when he grappled with the racism and segregation that kept black American’s stifled from social, economic, and political progress. And with his training he defaulted to react discreetly, not wearing his political affiliation or views on his sleeve. The effect was nonetheless impactful. To witness both emotional events like assassinations, Civil Rights movement violence and, in time, triumphs like the passing of The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, it is evident that he exhibited a herculean amount of restraint.
Even the White House, his daily destination of duty, was not immune nor could it serve as a place of refuge. “In 1962 he was working at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the most powerful address in the world. He could leave there, get in his car and drive to a rest stop in his native Virginia and have to use a bathroom for blacks only. And then go back to work under the American flag. The dual emotions that must have been rumbling inside of him – he was able to quiet any anger and go in to work every day, not in a restaurant, a bar, or factory, but at the most powerful address in the world that was supposed to be an emblem for world freedom. He didn’t have his rights and yet he never missed a day of work,” Haygood presented with zeal.
“When JFK was assassinated, Mr. Allen stayed at the White House all day heart stricken. He waited until the plane from Dallas had flown back to Washington, D.C. He stayed around as long as he could and helped everybody and then he went home at about 11:00pm. His son told me this – at about three o’clock in the morning he woke up, he got dressed and his wife asked him where he was going. He said, ‘I have to go back to the White House. Somebody might wake up in the middle of the night and need me. Everybody is in pain. Everybody is in shock’. And as he was walking down the hallway he crumpled to the floor and sobbed. And his son told me it was the first time he had seen his father cry. As with the assassination of Dr. King, Allen was heartbroken, but determined. Washington D.C. was engulfed in riots. While he drove to the White House through the fire and violence he got out of his car, parked it and walked the rest of the way. As grief stricken as he was it was important for him to get to work that day,” Haygood explained.
Eugene Allen’s resilience of character in the face of internal turmoil displays an example of what we all hope to be – courageous, everyday heroes who know quitting is not a viable option. Quite possibly the studio upped the release date three months earlier not to delay capitalizing on the opportunity to connect the public with Allen’s story. In describing Eugene Allen’s stature amongst celebrated history makers, which ultimately reveals both his conviction and connection to everyman, Haygood places Allen near the top. “He almost rises to the top. It’s interesting that the men I wrote about are famous figures and Mr. Allen was unknown to those men. Two of them he probably served. He probably served coffee or tea to Adam Clayton Powell or Sammy Davis, Jr. in the White House.
Mr. Allen stayed on the same job for thirty-four years. He represented to those eight presidents an example of a black man who works for his family, who believes in the country, who salutes his flag, and he never quit. There were other butlers who came and went especially after the 1960s and the social revolution during a time where it might not have seemed so cool to be a butler, a servant, in the White House. The Civil Rights Bill had not really taken full hold yet, and to stay on that job had to have meant that he believed in America and that he loved his country. And it didn’t matter that the occupant of the Oval Office was a Democrat or a Republican. He did his job very well and in the end he rose to be the maître d’, the highest ranking butler at the White House. So, his life had an amazing American song to it and I think we are in his debt to him.”
Oprah Winfrey, who plays Eugene Allen’s wife, Helene, explains her reason for taking this role which reveals more of Allen’s heroic commitment to provide a better life for his family and many others. “It was people like Eugene and Helene Allen who helped build the black middle class in this country. And that is a big reason why I took this role.” Allen chose to leave a legacy by staying on the job, which enabled him to put his son through college, extend finances to relatives who desired to migrate from the brutal south, and mentor many of the butlers and service people that came through the White House. According to Haygood, “Many who passed under his tutelage went on to get jobs in big hotel chains in LA or Chicago.”
Eugene and Helene Allen were very much inspired by the life of Barack Obama and his vision for the country. The election of President Obama in 2008, a black man who defied the odds, who noticed the historically relevant achievements of another black man enough to help him see, “the dream” not as a servant, but as a special guest, not as butler, but as a beacon of bravery and beneficiary to that dream. As Martin Luther King, Jr. gave voice to the dream, it was men like Eugene Allen whose life made the dream real every day. Eugene Allen served more than the inhabitants of the White House, he served humanity.
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
iRock Jazz is honored to have a first look at Eugene Allen’s life and Wil Haygood’s enlightening perspective and story.
A few days after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the Washington Post published an article about a black butler who served in the White House for 34 years, under eight presidents, from Truman to Reagan. Eugene Allen represented, as journalist Wil Haygood wrote, “a story from the back pages of history. A figure in the tiniest of print. The man in the kitchen.”
“He was there,” Haygood continued, “while America’s racial history was being remade: Brown v. Board of Education, the Little Rock school crisis, the 1963 March on Washington, the cities burning, the civil rights bills, the assassinations.” Allen undoubtedly lived a fascinating life, meeting countless historical figures during especially polarizing times, and it’s unsurprising that Haygood’s profile caught the eye of Hollywood. It is now the basis for Lee Daniels’ The Butler (the director’s name is included thanks to silly copyright claims made by Warner Bros).
But as interesting as Haygood’s profile is, “A Butler Well Served by This Election” doesn’t provide that many details about Allen’s time in the White House outside a handful of facts and humorous anecdotes. (Allen’s wife Helene referred affectionately to former First Lady Rosalynn Carter as “country,” for instance.) The Butler is a bit more than 2 hours long, spans several decades, and includes multiple storylines. It’s fair to say it has epic ambitions.
So how much of Allen’s real-life experience actually made it into the film?
Not much. According to Daniels’ foreword in The Butler: A Witness to History, a book by Haygood published to accompany the film, the movie “is set against historical events,” but “the title character and his family are fictionalized.” The skeleton of Allen’s story is there: the childhood on a plantation in the early 1920s, the interactions with several presidents. But the names have been changed: Allen and his wife, Helene, are called Cecil and Gloria Gaines. (They’re played by Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.) At least one key character, Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo), is entirely made up.
The following breakdown is based on Haygood’s profile and the accompanying book. (I have emailed Haygood and will update the post if he provides additional information.) Spoilers follow.
The butler’s backstory
The film opens with young Cecil in Macon, Georgia, in the 1920s, working in a cotton field alongside his father. His mother (Mariah Carey) is raped by a white plantation overseer, Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer), loud enough for everyone to hear. When Westfall returns, Cecil’s father shows his anger, and Westfall shoots him dead in front of Cecil and the other plantation workers. The plantation matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) then decides that Cecil should leave the fields to become a “house nigger” and learn to serve her family.
Those appear to be the inventions of screenplay writer Danny Strong; they are never mentioned in Haygood’s piece.* Eugene Allen was born in 1919, and, like Cecil, he grew up on a plantation (in Virginia, not Georgia). He, too, became a “house boy” for a white family. When he spoke to Haygood about his childhood, “There was nary a hint of bitterness in his voice about his upbringing.” Allen left the plantation in hopes of finding better work, as Cecil does—but unlike his fictional counterpart, he never broke into a hotel restaurant to steal food. (He did, however, land a job at a Virginia hotel as a waiter, as Cecil ultimately does in North Carolina.)
How the butler got his job at the White House
Allen learned of a job at a country club in Washington, D.C., a fact that aligns with Cecil’s move to the nation’s capital. But their entries to the White House differ considerably: Allen learned via word of mouth that Alonzo Fields, a black maître d’ at the White House, was looking for pantry workers, and he went to talk to him. He began working there in 1952, during the Truman administration, but didn’t get promoted to butler until several years later. In the movie, the White House calls Gaines after a white senior staffer witnesses Cecil in action at the D.C. hotel—a point Cecil, in voiceover, emphasizes proudly.
Cecil is hired as butler just as soon as black maître d’ Freddie Fallows (Colman Domingo) confirms that he is not actively political and is experienced in his field. He begins working in the White House under Eisenhower’s administration, in 1957.
Other moments from the film appear to be true: Allen witnessed presidents mulling over important historical decisions, including Eisenhower’s fight with Arkansas governor Orval Faubus regarding the desegregation of Little Rock. And his wife Helene did pass away just prior to Obama’s election (though it was the Sunday night prior, not the morning of, as the film implies).
The butler’s family
Allen had one son, Charles, who served in Vietnam, just as Cecil’s younger son (also named Charles) does. Allen’s son survived the war, while his fictional counterpart does not. The real-life Charles is still alive, and has seen and approved of the new movie, according to Haygood.
The invented older son, Louis, serves as the main source of conflict in the narrative of Cecil’s life, in an attempt to highlight the clash between the older and younger black generation. Louis, who’s ashamed that his father is content with serving white people, is himself present for several important historical moments, including the attack and burning of a Freedom Riders bus in 1961; he’s also imprisoned in the same jail as Martin Luther King, Jr. after a protest.
Gloria Gaines, the butler’s wife, has an affair with a neighbor (Terrence Howard) and struggles with alcoholism. These storlines appear to be fictional.
The butler and the Reagans
Judging from Haygood’s interview, it seems that Allen, like Cecil, was grateful to have his job at the White House, and wary of involving himself in the politics of the time—even in his old age, he is not quoted saying anything disparaging about the presidents he worked under. In the movie, Cecil asks for equal pay among the black and white service staff, who each perform the same level of duties. His request is denied, and he accepts this. Years later, he again asks for a raise, and when he is turned down a second time, he tells his supervisor that he spoke to President Reagan personally, and that Reagan insists on the raise himself. Allen did receive a promotion to maître d’ in 1980, but there’s no indication that he ever asked for a raise.*
Cecil’s character arc is complete when Nancy Reagan invites him to the state dinner as a guest—the first black butler to receive such an invitation in the history of the White House. This did, in fact, happen to Allen, but the cinematic version unfolds quite differently. Here’s how it’s described in Haygood’s profile:
“Had champagne that night,” the butler’s wife would remember all these years later. As she said it, Eugene, rocking in his chair, just grinned: for so many years he had stocked champagne in the White House.
In the film, on the other hand, Cecil’s discomfort at sitting among the white elite is made clear through voiceover, as he describes feeling like an outsider and a traitor to his black colleagues who are now serving him. He can now see first-hand how each server “performs” for guests, and recognizes that he’s been unknowingly wearing the same mask for years. This moment, along with Cecil overhearing Reagan’s promise to veto the sanctions against apartheid-ridden South Africa, prompts the butler to hand in his resignation. Haygood’s article only mentions that Eugene “left the White House in 1986” and received a “sweet note” from the president and a “tight” hug from First Lady Nancy.
The butler and Obama
The film ends with Cecil returning to the White House to meet President Obama. I can’t tell if Allen ever actually met the president, but he did get a VIP invitation to the inauguration in 2009, and was in attendance on that historical day. When he passed away in 2010, the president sent a letter to his family acknowledging his years in service and “abiding patriotism.”
November 7, 2008
For more than three decades Eugene Allen worked in the White House, a black man unknown to the headlines. During some of those years, harsh segregation laws lay upon the land.
He trekked home every night, his wife, Helene, keeping him out of her kitchen.
At the White House, he worked closer to the dirty dishes than to the large desk in the Oval Office. Helene didn’t care; she just beamed with pride.
President Truman called him Gene.
President Ford liked to talk golf with him.
He saw eight presidential administrations come and go, often working six days a week. « I never missed a day of work, » Allen says.
His is a story from the back pages of history. A figure in the tiniest of print. The man in the kitchen.
He was there while America’s racial history was being remade: Brown v. Board of Education, the Little Rock school crisis, the 1963 March on Washington, the cities burning, the civil rights bills, the assassinations.
When he started at the White House in 1952, he couldn’t even use the public restrooms when he ventured back to his native Virginia. « We had never had anything, » Allen, 89, recalls of black America at the time. « I was always hoping things would get better. »
In its long history, the White House — just note the name — has had a complex and vexing relationship with black Americans.
« The history is not so uneven at the lower level, in the kitchen, » says Ted Sorensen, who served as counselor to President Kennedy. « In the kitchen, the folks have always been black. Even the folks at the door — black. »
Sorensen tried to address the matter of blacks in the White House. But in the end, there was only one black man who stayed on the executive staff at the Kennedy White House past the first year. « There just weren’t as many blacks as there should have been, » says Sorensen. « Sensitivities weren’t what they should have been, or could have been. »
In 1866 the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, sensing an opening to advocate for black voting rights, made a White House visit to lobby President Andrew Johnson. Johnson refused to engage in a struggle for black voting rights. Douglass was back at the White House in 1877. But no one wished to discuss his political sentiments: President Rutherford Hayes had engaged the great man — it was a time of high minstrelsy across the nation — to serve as a master of ceremonies for an evening of entertainment.
In the fall of 1901, another famous black American came to the door. President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Institute, to meet with him at the White House. Roosevelt was careful not to announce the invitation, fearing a backlash, especially from Southerners. But news of the visit leaked quickly enough and the uproar was swift and noisy. In an editorial, the Memphis Scimitar would write in the ugly language of the times: « It is only recently that President Roosevelt boasted that his mother was a Southern woman, and that he is half Southern by reason of that fact. By inviting a nigger to his table he pays his mother small duty. »
Fifty years later, invitations to the White House were still fraught with racial subtext. When the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow pianist Hazel Scott to perform at Constitution Hall because of her race, many letters poured into the White House decrying the DAR’s position. First lady Bess Truman was a member of the organization, but she made no effort to get the DAR to alter its policy. Scott’s husband, Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, subsequently referred to Bess Truman as « the last lady of the land. » The words outraged President Truman, who vowed to aides he would find some way to punish Powell and barred the fellow Democrat from setting foot inside the Truman White House.
The first black to hold a policy or political position in the White House was E. Frederick Morrow, a former public relations executive with CBS. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential campaign operatives were so impressed with Morrow’s diligent work during the 1952 campaign that they promised him a White House executive job if Ike were elected. Ike won, but Morrow ended up being placed at the Department of Commerce. He felt slighted and appealed to Republican friends in New York to force the White House to make good on its promise.
The phone finally rang in 1955 and Morrow was named administrative officer for special projects. He had hoped the title would give him wide responsibilities inside the White House, but found himself dealing, for the most part, with issues related to the Brown desegregation ruling, the Rosa Parks-led bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., and the 1957 Little Rock school crisis.
« He was a man of great dignity, » says Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution, who worked as a speechwriter for Eisenhower. Morrow was in a lonely position, but « he did not complain, » says Hess. « That wasn’t Fred Morrow. »
When Morrow left his White House position, he imagined there’d be corporate job offers. There were not. « Only thing he was offered were jobs related to the black community, » says Hess. Nonetheless, « after Morrow, it was appropriate to have a black person on the staff of the White House. »
Before he landed his job at the White House, Gene Allen worked as a waiter at the Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Va., and then at a country club in Washington.
He and wife Helene, 86, are sitting in the living room of their home off Georgia Avenue NW. A cane rests across her lap. Her voice is musical, in a Lena Horne kind of way. She calls him « honey. » They met in Washington at a birthday party in 1942. He was too shy to ask for her number, so she tracked his down. They married a year later.
In 1952, a lady told him of a job opening in the White House. « I wasn’t even looking for a job, » he says. « I was happy where I was working, but she told me to go on over there and meet with a guy by the name of Alonzo Fields. »
Fields was a maitre d’, and he immediately liked Allen.
Allen was offered a job as a « pantry man. » He washed dishes, stocked cabinets and shined silverware. He started at $2,400 a year.
There was, in time, a promotion to butler. « Shook the hand of all the presidents I ever worked for, » he says.
« I was there, honey, » Helene reminds. « In the back, maybe. But I shook their hands, too. » She’s referring to White House holiday parties, Easter egg hunts. They have one son, Charles. He works as an investigator with the State Department.
« President Ford’s birthday and my birthday were on the same day, » he says. « He’d have a birthday party at the White House. Everybody would be there. And Mrs. Ford would say, ‘It’s Gene’s birthday, too!’ «
And so they’d sing a little ditty to the butler. And the butler, who wore a tuxedo to work every day, would blush.
« Jack Kennedy was very nice, » he goes on. « And so was Mrs. Kennedy. »
« Hmm-mmm, » she says, rocking.
He was in the White House kitchen the day JFK was slain. He got a personal invitation to the funeral. But he volunteered for other duty: « Somebody had to be at the White House to serve everyone after they came from the funeral. »
The whole family of President Jimmy Carter made her chuckle: « They were country. And I’m talking Lillian and Rosalynn both. » It comes out sounding like the highest compliment.
First lady Nancy Reagan came looking for him in the kitchen one day. She wanted to remind him about the upcoming dinner for West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. He told her he was well ahead in the planning and had already picked out the china. But she told him he would not be working that night.
« She said, ‘You and Helene are coming to the state dinner as guests of President Reagan and myself.’ I’m telling you! I believe I’m the only butler to get invited to a state dinner. »
Husbands and wives don’t sit together at these events, and Helene was nervous about trying to make small talk with world leaders. « And my son says, ‘Mama, just talk about your high school. They won’t know the difference.’
« The senators were all talking about the colleges and universities that they went to, » she says. » I was doing as much talking as they were.
« Had champagne that night, » she says, looking over at her husband.
He just grins: He was the man who stacked the champagne at the White House.
Moving Up, but Slowly
President Kennedy, who succeeded Eisenhower, started with two blacks, Frank Reeves and Andrew Hatcher, in executive positions on his White House staff. Only Hatcher, a deputy press secretary, remained after six months. Reeves, who focused on civil rights matters, left in a political reshuffling.
The issue of race bedeviled this White House, even amid good intentions. In February 1963, Kennedy invited 800 blacks to the White House to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Louis Martin, a Democratic operative who helped plan the function, had placed the names of entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. and his wife, May Britt, on the guest list. The White House scratched it off and Martin would put it back on. According to Martin, Kennedy was aghast when he saw the black and white couple stroll into the White House. His face reddened and he instructed photographers that no pictures of the interracial couple would be taken.
But Sammy Davis Jr. was not finished with 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. He got himself invited to the Nixon White House to meet with the president and talk about Vietnam and business opportunities for blacks. He even slept in the Lincoln Bedroom once. When Davis sang at the 1972 Republican convention in Miami, he famously wrapped his arms around Nixon at a youth rally there, becoming forever identified with a White House that many blacks found hostile.
Lyndon Johnson devoted considerable energy and determination to civil rights legislation, even appointing the first black to the Supreme Court. But it did not translate to any appreciable number of blacks working on his staff. Clifford Alexander says he was the sole black in Johnson’s White House, serving first as a National Security Council officer, then as associate White House counsel.
« We were fighting for something quite new, » says Alexander. « You knew how much your job meant. And you knew President Johnson was fighting on your behalf. » As a young man growing up in Harlem, Alexander had heard about Morrow. Mothers and fathers pointed to him as a grand success story. « Fred was a lovely man, » says Alexander. « But they did not pay any attention to him in the Eisenhower White House. »
Colin Powell would become the highest-ranking black of any White House to that point when he was named President Reagan’s national security adviser in 1987. Condoleezza Rice would have that same position under President George W. Bush.
The butler remembers seeing both Powell and Rice in the Oval Office. He was serving refreshments. He couldn’t help notice that blacks were moving closer to the center of power, closer than he could ever have dreamed. He’d tell Helene how proud it made him feel.
Time for Change
Gene Allen was promoted to maitre d’ in 1980. He left the White House in 1986, after 34 years. President Reagan wrote him a sweet note. Nancy Reagan hugged him, tight.
Interviewed at their home last week, Gene and Helene speculated about what it would mean if a black man were actually elected president.
« Just imagine, » she said.
« It’d be really something, » he said.
« We’re pretty much past the going-out stage, » she said. « But you never know. If he gets in there, it’d sure be nice to go over there again. »
They’ve got pictures of President and Mrs. Reagan in the living room. On a wall in the basement, they’ve got pictures of every president Gene ever served. There’s a painting President Eisenhower gave him and a picture of President Ford opening birthday gifts, Gene hovering nearby.
They talked about praying to help Barack Obama get to the White House. They’d go vote together. She’d lean on her cane with one hand, and on him with the other, while walking down to the precinct. And she’d get supper going afterward. They’d gone over their Election Day plans more than once.
« Imagine, » she said.
« That’s right, » he said.
On Monday Helene had a doctor’s appointment. Gene woke and nudged her once, then again. He shuffled around to her side of the bed. He nudged Helene again. He was all alone.
« I woke up and my wife didn’t, » he said later.
Some friends and family members rushed over. He wanted to make coffee. They had to shoo the butler out of the kitchen.
The lady whom he married 65 years ago will be buried today.
The butler cast his vote for Obama on Tuesday. He so missed telling his Helene about the black man bound for the Oval Office.
Voir par ailleurs:
Lee Daniels retrace le parcours du majordome qui a servi trente-quatre ans à la Maison-Blanche sous huit présidents. Un homme qui a accompagné l’histoire américaine.
Cecil Gaines, incarné par Forest Whitaker, est l’avatar fictionnel d’Eugene Allen, majordome qui officia à la Maison-Blanche de 1952 à 1986. Retracer le destin de l’homme qui servit huit Présidents (de Eisenhower à Reagan), c’est raconter, via un témoin privilégié, l’éradication du racisme et de la ségrégation au plus haut sommet de l’État. LE MAJORDOME n’est pas une biographie : certains faits ont été modifiés ou créés de toutes pièces, afin que Cecil cristallise l’Histoire américaine et que, par son seul regard, le film puisse balayer soixante ans d’évolutions. Et poser encore davantage de questions. Car Cecil, jeune esclave des champs de coton, va s’élever socialement en devenant le serviteur des blancs. Son recruteur lui explique qu’ »à la Maison-Blanche, il n’y a aucune tolérance pour la politique ». Une ironie qui le force à se dépolitiser. Ainsi privé de toute conscience civique, il va se perdre entre les décisions des puissants et l’activisme du peuple noir. Et s’éloigner de son fils (David Oyelowo), engagé auprès de Martin Luther King puis de Malcolm X. Cecil est-il un esclave consentant d’une Amérique qui a conditionné les Noirs à s’asservir ou est-il au contraire, comme Luther King l’affirme, un être « subversif » qui s’ignore ? LE MAJORDOME est donc plus que l’hagiographie d’un témoin politique. Il ouvre des pistes de réflexion sur l’émancipation des opprimés et tend un miroir cruel à tous les Américains, via de nombreuses scènes à la puissance dévastatrice. Le réalisateur Lee Daniels est un rebelle pacifiste mais au cinéma, il dérange. LE MAJORDOME n’est ni poli ni beau sous tous rapports. C’est une œuvre de mauvais goût où le grain de l’image est gros, où les lumières sont cramées. Où Mariah Carey joue une esclave violée par son propriétaire terrien, où Oprah Winfrey incarne une desperate housewife alcoolique, où Lenny Kravitz met le tablier pour faire des petits fours. S’il n’est bien-pensant, LE MAJORDOME peut être rebutant : les maquillages prothétiques y sont franchement borderline, et cette certaine théâtralité peut friser la soirée déguisée. Mais sous cette grossièreté cinématographique, explosent une vraie flamboyance et une grande honnêteté. On est loin de l’entreprise cynique et bâclée. L’histoire, qui idéologiquement peut atteindre une grande complexité, est submergée par l’émotion, elle est racontée sans ambages, en ligne droite, et le règlement de compte que l’Amérique entreprend avec elle-même est douloureux. Il y a chez Lee Daniels, déjà responsable de PRECIOUS et PAPERBOY, une manière de s’exprimer sans s’excuser qui peut passer pour de l’arrogance ou de l’inconscience. Mais elle peut aussi révéler une personnalité entière des plus touchantes.
De Lee Daniels. Avec Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo. États-Unis. 2h12. Sortie le 11 septembre
10 septembre 2013
À peine ce Majordome nous intrigue-t-il – surtout par la cinglante démesure avec laquelle il semble endosser le genre du « film à Oscars » – que nous devons déjà ravaler nos minces espoirs : il n’y a que peu à sauver dans une entreprise à la fois aussi ambitieuse et aussi diminuée.
Cecil Gaines est un témoin privilégié de l’histoire contemporaine : il a officié durant sept présidences – nous n’en verrons réellement que cinq – en tant que majordome à la Maison Blanche. C’est aussi un Noir américain, né dans les champs de coton du Sud où il a vu son propre père se faire assassiner par son employeur blanc, avant de partir de son côté pour Washington et « servir », d’abord dans un palace, puis dans la demeure présidentielle. Le Majordome tente, ainsi, deux grands écarts : faire tenir en un seul film à la fois un résumé de toute l’histoire contemporaine américaine (par le prisme du Bureau ovale), et un résumé de toute la lutte pour la libération des Noirs (par le prisme d’une famille dont chaque génération constitue un chapitre de l’histoire des civil rights).
C’est cette vaste entreprise de pédagogie qui fait du Majordome un projet essentiellement grotesque, qui n’a que le temps de saisir les bouleversements historiques sous forme d’instants, de saynètes d’un plus grand tableau qui serait l’hagiographie d’un pays, les Etats-Unis, et d’une figure semi-divine, le Président. Ainsi se trouvent vignettées l’assassinat de Kennedy  (une dizaine de minutes), la guerre du Vietnam (pas mieux), la démission de Richard Nixon (un plan), où Lee Daniels visite l’histoire comme on visiterait un musée en courant, jetant des coups d’œil vaguement curieux aux mandats traversés. La question de l’émancipation des Noirs, essentiellement structurée autour de la relation entre un père bien rangé (Forest Whitaker) et son fils militant du Black Panther (David Oyelowo), n’en est pas moins caricaturale : Lee Daniels consacre une intarissable énergie à faire du « nègre de maison » (ainsi qu’ils sont appelés dans les riches propriétés du Sud) une image de libération en refusant de voir qu’elle cumule tous les attributs de la servilité.
À l’arrivée, difficile de déterminer quel versant du film est la toile de fond de l’autre. Avançant conjointement, présidence et mouvement des civil rights se font les deux points cardinaux de la contemporanéité politique américaine. Le Majordome pose ainsi l’empreinte d’un imaginaire collectif, brutalement matérialisé par une saisie de l’histoire qui est à rapprocher de l’écriture automatique. Chaque donnée politique se trouve ramenée à une image-réflexe, un souvenir prégnant ; ainsi se voient d’ailleurs tout bonnement évacués deux présidents déjà dissous dans l’amnésie générale (Gerald Ford et Jimmy Carter). La présidence de Barack Obama apparaît alors comme le salut du film, la rencontre pacifiée de ses deux sillages contradictoires. Versant littéralement dans le fanatisme – Cecil Gaines, vieillard et veuf, fond en larmes devant l’annonce des résultats en 2008 –, le final du Majordome nous rappelle à quel point l’écriture de l’histoire au cinéma n’est jamais mieux prise en défaut que dans son écriture du présent : l’agenouillement aveugle sur lequel le film s’achève vaut pour preuve de son simplisme généralisé.
 Il faudrait d’ailleurs se demander pourquoi les deux films américains se proposant de représenter cette année l’assassinat d’un président ont systématiquement écarté l’image même de cet assassinat, dissimulée dans une ellipse. On ne verra pas plus la mort de John F. Kennedy qu’on ne vit celle d’Abraham Lincoln chez Steven Spielberg. Refoulé traumatique ?
Cette fresque humaniste sur un majordome qui a servi sept présidents des États-Unis et sur les tensions raciales figure déjà parmi les favoris pour la course aux Oscars.
Au début de sa carrière de majordome, Cecil Gaines (incarné par Forest Whitaker) est au service d…
ANNE MARIE FOX /Butler Films/LLC
Au début de sa carrière de majordome, Cecil Gaines (incarné par Forest Whitaker) est au service de Dwignt D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams).
LE MAJORDOME *** de Lee Daniels
Film américain, 2 h 05
« Je ne dois pas t’entendre respirer. » Telle est la première recommandation, terrible, de la vieille propriétaire de la plantation à Cecil Gaines, âgé de 7 ans en 1926, qui quitte les champs de coton pour devenir « nègre de maison ». Une promotion en guise de consolation : son père a été tué pour avoir esquissé une protestation contre le viol de sa mère par le maître des lieux.
L’orphelin apprend la place des couverts, la présentation des mets, la discrétion qui confine à l’invisibilité. Jeune adulte, il part de la plantation et trouve un emploi de majordome dans un bel hôtel, d’abord en Virginie puis à Washington où il épouse Gloria qui met au monde deux fils.
Sa méticulosité et sa culture l’amènent à devenir l’un des six majordomes en fonction à la Maison-Blanche. Embauché en 1957 alors qu’Eisenhower est au pouvoir, il demeure à ce poste durant sept présidences.
De la ségrégation raciale à l’élection de Barack Obama
En 2008, au moment de l’élection présidentielle, le Washington Post publie les entretiens d’un journaliste avec Eugene Allen, majordome pendant trente-quatre ans à la Maison-Blanche et qui mourra en 2010 à 90 ans. Le film de Lee Daniels s’inspire de son parcours exceptionnel. Un sujet en or dont le réalisateur tire une fantastique page d’histoire tout en ne perdant jamais de vue la petite histoire de son héros, Cecil Gaines.
En deux heures, ce long métrage balaie le demi-siècle où les États-Unis sont passés d’une période où un Blanc pouvait abattre un Noir, en toute impunité, à l’élection de Barack Obama à la présidence. Une révolution à l’échelle d’une vie. Se succèdent les étapes souvent sanglantes de la condition des Noirs, sans pesanteur grâce à l’entrelacs de ce propos avec la vie des personnages.
Étudiant, Louis, le fils aîné de Cecil, part dans le Sud afin de participer au mouvement pour l’égalité des droits civiques par la résistance pacifique chère à Gandhi et Martin Luther King ; il occupe des places réservées aux Blancs dans les restaurants et les bus, ce qui lui vaut blessures et séjours en prison. Cecil suit cet engagement avec affliction : il ne comprend pas ce militantisme et l’ingratitude d’un fils à qui il a tout donné pour mener une vie bourgeoise et paisible.
« À la Maison-Blanche, nous ne tolérons pas que vous soyez politisé »
C’est l’excellente idée du film de Lee Daniels : il ne se contente pas d’être une biographie filmée et de dérouler les étapes de l’émancipation des Noirs. Par l’antagonisme père-fils, il montre la complexité de cette mutation et deux stratégies opposées : l’intégration du père qui a trouvé sa place, même modeste, dans le saint des saints de la démocratie américaine, et la rébellion du fils, d’abord pacifiste avant de se radicaliser avec les Black Panthers.
Cecil Gaines accepte sans sourciller l’énormité énoncée lors de son recrutement : « À la Maison-Blanche, nous ne tolérons pas que vous soyez politisé. » Mais peut-être, de l’intérieur, peut-il œuvrer en douceur pour une évolution, à défaut d’une révolution.
Malcolm X oppose les « nègres de maison », conservateurs, et les « nègres des champs », révoltés. Martin Luther King au contraire voit la dimension subversive des premiers, dociles et travailleurs, à l’encontre des stéréotypes des racistes.
Film à la réalisation classique voire académique, Le Majordome brille par sa distribution où se bousculent les stars. Forest Whitaker donne une élégance retenue et un charisme modeste à Cecil Gaines. Oprah Winfrey incarne Gloria, son épouse délaissée. Inégal, le casting des présidents réunit Robin Williams (Dwight D. Eisenhower), James Marsden (John F. Kennedy) et Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan) accompagné de Jane Fonda (Nancy Reagan).
De facture hollywoodienne, le film joue (parfois trop) sur la corde de l’émotion, au point de tirer des larmes aux spectateurs et à Barack Obama. « J’ai pleuré, a-t-il expliqué, non seulement parce que je pensais aux majordomes qui ont travaillé ici, à la Maison-Blanche, mais aussi à une génération entière de gens qui étaient capables et talentueux, mais ont été bridés à cause des lois raciales, à cause des discriminations. »
Au service de huit présidents à la Maison-Blanche, Eugene Allen (1919-2010) passa sa vie dans les coulisses de l’Histoire. Rebaptisé Cecil Gaines, il devient, en quelque sorte, l’ambassadeur de tout un peuple : les Noirs américains. Lee Daniels est l’un d’eux et il n’hésite pas à politiser son propos. C’est d’ailleurs la bonne surprise de ce film, qu’on pouvait redouter bien plus décoratif et anecdotique… Deux ou trois scènes où passe un plateau d’argent suffisent à résumer le travail de ce valet des présidents. Eisenhower, Kennedy ou Nixon sont représentés avec un minimum de crédibilité, Jane Fonda vient faire sa Nancy Reagan : elle est très drôle, mais toute cette reconstitution reste simplette. L’important est ailleurs. Lee Daniels insiste sur la principale qualité d’un bon majordome : être invisible. La clé d’une discrétion qui va de soi, mais aussi une règle de survie sociale : pour être tolérés par les Blancs, les Noirs doivent éviter de se faire remarquer. Un principe contre lequel va s’élever le fils du majordome qui devient, lui, un héros de la bataille des droits civiques, dans le sillage de Martin Luther King et Malcolm X.
Cet aspect symbolique ne va pas sans une certaine schématisation. Mais Lee Daniels réussit à raconter, expliquer cette Amérique qui a difficilement renoncé à la discrimination raciale et n’en est pas encore complètement remise. Un pays, cependant, où un Noir, embauché à la Maison-Blanche, y revint, à la fin de sa vie, pour rencontrer Barack Obama. Un parcours qui a tout d’une parabole.