For all the unlikely casting of U.S. presidents in "Lee Daniels' The Butler" (Robin Williams as Ike? James Marsden as JFK? Uh... okay...), the movie's highly subjective recreation of history actually seems to work. Maybe the actors aren't up to the task of playing such formidable real-life titans, but then, as seen by the long-serving White House manservant of the movie's title, these presidents are all just men, overwhelmed by the burdens of politics, world events, and history's eventual judgment. He sees them all at their most vulnerable and proves the old adage that no man is a hero to his valet.
Still, as subjective as the movie is about the many presidents that Forest Whitaker's character serves and the crises they address while he pours their coffee, it holds pretty close to the historical record. In fact, the movie takes its greatest liberties not with the presidents but with the butler and his family life. In the movie, his name is Cecil Gaines, he serves seven presidents over 30 years, and he has two sons – one who's an activist in all the major Civil Rights protests of the 1960s and one who willingly goes off to fight in Vietnam. In real life, however, the butler's name was Eugene Allen, he served eight presidents over 34 years, and he had one son.
You can read the details of Allen's remarkable life in Wil Haygood's 2008 Washington Post article "A Butler Well Served by This Election," and Haygood's recent book "The Butler: A Witness to History." As for how the movie's depictions of major historical figures match up against the actual record, here are the details. (Spoliers follow.)
Dwight D. Eisenhower: In the movie, Cecil's first day at the White House coincides with Ike's intervention in the Central High School integration imbroglio in Little Rock, Arkansas. Cecil muses to himself that it's the first time he's seen a white man stick his neck out to help black people. Later on, Cecil sees the former D-Day general and current leader of the free world taking time off to paint a flower-strewn landscape.
In fact, Allen began working at the White House under Eisenhower's predecessor, Harry S. Truman. But there are photos of Allen serving coffee to Eisenhower and his advisers during the Little Rock crisis, just as the movie depicts. Also, Eisenhower really did paint landscapes and portraits as a hobby, and Allen kept one of the president's paintings on display at his own house in northwest Washington, D.C.
John F. Kennedy: The movie's JFK suffers so much from Addison's disease and other ailments that he can barely move; at one point, Cecil finds him prone on the bedroom floor and has to help him stand up. He also takes lots of medicine; Cecil estimates it at 103 pills a day. Cecil reads bedtime stories to little Caroline Kennedy. After the assassination, a distraught Jackie Kennedy gives Cecil one of the president's neckties as a memento.
The movie's assertions about JFK's medical history are borne out by presidential historian Robert Dallek's research. In addition to Addison's disease, he endured several digestive tract and back ailments that were so painful that even simple motions like reaching across his desk or tying his shoe were excruciating. As a result, the president was on eight to 12 different medications at any given time, though it's not clear how many pills per day that amounted to. After his assassination, Jackie invited Allen as a guest to the funeral, but he chose to stay behind at the White House and serve as needed. He comforted Caroline, who was just shy of her sixth birthday at the time. Jackie did give Allen one of JFK's ties, which he framed and displayed at his home.
Lyndon B. Johnson: Cecil is a witness as LBJ barks orders to underlings while seated on the presidential toilet, with the bathroom door open. Cecil admires Johnson's passage of landmark Civil Rights legislation but holds his tongue about Johnson's prosecution of the Vietnam War, even though Cecil has a son, Charles, who fights and ultimately dies in Vietnam.
According to Dallek, this was a common Johnson tactic, one designed to unnerve and intimidate whomever Johnson was talking to. Allen did have a son named Charles who served in Vietnam, but Charles came back alive.
Martin Luther King Jr.: Cecil's son Louis, a longtime Civil Rights activist, is a close associate of Dr. King's, close enough to accompany him on his fatal trip to Memphis in 1968. There, Louis sheepishly admits that his father is a butler, but Dr. King sees no shame in that profession, asserting that Cecil is furthering the cause and subverting stereotypes by presenting an image of a black man who's industrious and dignified. When King is assassinated, blacks in Washington riot, forcing a frightened Cecil to abandon his car and walk to work.
In real life, there was no Louis, but Allen did meet Dr. King during a White House visit, when the Civil Rights leader made a point of meeting and complimenting the White House's all-black service staff. Allen certainly was industrious; in 34 years, he never took a sick day. The movie's account of Allen's encounter with rioters after King's death comes from Haygood's interviews with Allen.
Richard M. Nixon: In an awkward encounter that's an apparent attempt at community outreach, Vice President Nixon visits the White House's all-black service staff when he's campaigning for president in 1960 and gives them all pro-Nixon buttons. Fourteen years later, Cecil encounters a defiant President Nixon one night, listening to the Watergate tapes and vowing not to resign. His slurred speech suggests drunkenness.
According to Haygood, Allen found Nixon to be shrewd, secretive, and a little distant. As Eisenhower's vice president, he actually had a better Civil Rights record than his 1960 rival, Senator John F. Kennedy, but African-American voters still overwhelmingly supported Kennedy. Nixon's 1968 campaign was criticized for his "Southern Strategy," appealing to voters a Nixon campaign strategist referred to as "Negrophobe whites," but once in office, he did more to further school integration than any of his predecessors. Nixon's late-night drinking and defiance in the final months of his presidency has been documented by such colleagues as then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan: In a scene suggesting that the president's Alzheimer's disease was already evident while he was in office, Reagan asks Cecil to go on a "secret mission" of philanthropy behind Nancy's back. To honor his 30 years of service, Nancy invites Cecil and his wife Gloria to a state dinner as guests. Talking to Senator Nancy Kassebaum, President Reagan remains steadfast against sanctions for South Africa over apartheid, but in private, he expresses doubts to Cecil, worrying that he's on the wrong side of history.
In real life, many Reagan observers, from his son Ron to various administration insiders, saw signs of Reagan's eventual senility during his White House years. The Reagans did invite Allen and his wife Helene to be guests at a state dinner in 1986. On South Africa, Reagan preferred a policy of "constructive engagement" (that is, diplomacy with supposed moderates in the South African government) over sanctions, but Congress overruled his veto of economic sanctions against the country. If Reagan had any doubts about his hardline policy against sanctions, history has not recorded them.
Barack Obama: Two decades after his retirement, Cecil and Gloria are so ready to vote for Obama in 2008 that they make practice runs to their polling place. Sadly, just hours before the vote, Gloria dies. Cecil is invited to Obama's inauguration ceremony.
That sounds like a contrivance only a screenwriter could invent, but it's true; Helene Allen, Eugene's wife of 65 years, died just hours before she was to go pull the lever for Obama. Still, Eugene Allen did live long enough to attend Obama's inauguration and to see a black man serve in the Oval Office instead of just serving coffee to the occupant of the Oval Office. Eugene Allen died at age 90 in 2010.