When Barack Obama became the first black President of the United States in 2008, a story was published in The Washington Post.
It detailed the life of Eugene Allen, who had been butler to eight White House presidents over 34 years during the civil rights movement.
Five years later, we are served this film, directed by Lee Daniels of Precious fame, very loosely based on Allen’s life.
At the start, we meet Cecil Gaines (aka Eugene Allen) working on the cotton fields with his mother and father as a young boy. When he is old enough, he leaves in search of a better life and after a chance encounter starts working as a waiter.
Now portrayed by Forest Whitaker, Cecil progresses through the ranks of various establishments until he achieves the position of butler in the White House.
So far, so simple, but Gaines’s home life is troubled.
The butler, pleased to have a good job, remains politically neutral. As a result he clashes with his son Louis (David Oyelowo), who is strongly involved in the fight for civil rights.
His wife (Oprah Winfrey) is falling apart, struggling with her husband’s devotion to work and resulting absence from the home, as well as Louis’s stints in and out of prison. It transpires that Louis is a Freedom Rider, and later a Black Panther, who becomes embroiled in many of the landmark civil rights events.
That is the first downfall of Daniels’s film - it tries to cram too much in.
There’s the life story of Gaines, the civil rights movement and the administrations of eight presidents. On top of that, the cast is jam-packed with big names. Robin Williams is Eisenhower, Liev Schreiber is Johnson, John Cusack is Nixon, Alan Rickman is Reagan, Jane Fonda is his wife Nancy, Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr are fellow butlers. Even Gaines’s mother, who appears for mere minutes, is played by Mariah Carey.
It is little surprise that the stars wanted to be involved in a film covering such a significant topic, and as a director it must have been hard for Daniels to say no. Of course, there are some great performances - Whitaker and Winfrey in particular.
But this naturally fascinating story does not need the starry faces to make it interesting, and what’s worse, the stellar cast ends up actually detracting attention from the very important tale at hand.