It’s an amazing story. Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, will have spent eight years in the Oval Office when he leaves the White House in January 2017. But there’s one black man who spent nearly four times that—34 years—in the White House, watching as eight presidents filed in and out and witnessing the country change from within the walls that were changing it.
The life of that man, Eugene Allen, is the basis for Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which debuts in theaters this weekend. The film was inspired by a 2008 Washington Post story titled “A Butler Well Served by This Election,”which first brought Allen’s story to the mainstream: a butler who served every president from Truman to Reagan and weathered the worst of the country’s brutal racial history was about to see the first black president of the United States sworn into office.
Allen was “a black man unknown to the headlines,” Will Haygood wrote in that Post article. Now, however, Allen’s story is playing out on the big screen in an Oscar-baiting film with a sprawling cast including Robin Williams, Terrence Howard, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Liev Schrieber, Oprah Winfrey, and, in the role inspired by Allen, Forest Whitaker. In The Butler, Whitaker’s Cecil Gaines is a slightly fictionalized version of Allen, one whose story—though very close to Allen’s own—plays better as the stylistic, sweeping melodrama the film sets out to be.
So how much is real and how much has been slightly embellished? Here’s your guide. (Beware: Spoilers ahead.)
His early life: FICTIONAL
The Butler, with its Forrest Gump-like ambition to touch on every significant moment and movement in the country’s 20th century racial history, begins by showing Cecil Gaines on a Georgia plantation picking cotton with his father (David Banner). After his mother (Mariah Carey, in a wordless performance) becomes catatonic after being raped by the plantation owner (Alex Pettyfer) and his father is subsequently murdered, Cecil is essentially orphaned. The woman in charge of the plantation (Vanessa Redgrave) takes pity on him and makes him a houseboy, the beginning of his life-long career as a domestic.
Allen, however, was born in Virginia, and, according to Haygood, never spoke bitterly about his upbringing or hinted at the monstrosities depicted in the film. He was a plantation houseboy in Virginia and did, as Cecil does in the film, leave in the pursuit of better employment. And that scene where Cecil lands his first job as a waiter after being caught stealing food by a sympathetic senior butler who helps him turn his life around? Just for the movie.
His family: FICTIONAL
As Cecil’s wife, Gloria, Oprah Winfrey gives the film’s most layered performance. She’s mesmerizing and stunningly nuanced as she battles an alcohol addiction, struggles with guilt over an affair, and weathers the emotional torture of a fractured family—her husband devotes his life to the White House, her eldest son joins the front lines of the dangerous civil rights movement, and her younger son is killed in Vietnam.
In reality, Allen’s wife, Helene, did not have a problem with alcohol nor did she have an affair. The biggest liberty taken, however, was giving Cecil two sons in the film. Eugene and Helene only had one son, Charles. Charles did serve in Vietnam, but is still alive. Louis, the older son in The Butler and a Freedom Rider and early member of the Black Panther Party, is the lens through which much of the film’s depiction of the civil rights movement is seen—he was invented for the film.
The momentous first day: FICTIONAL
Cecil’s first day at the White House, as portrayed in the film, is a doozy. It is the day President Eisenhower decides that the White House must intervene to ensure the safe integration of black students in Little Rock, Arkansas. It’s the first of many historic moments in the civil rights movement that Cecil would witness as a silent servant in the Oval Office.
Eugene Allen was actually serving Eisenhower and his advisers on that dramatic day—there are photos to prove it—but his real first day was during the Truman administration. He began as a pantry worker in 1952, and was promoted to butler years later.
The Kennedy assassination: TRUE (MOSTLY)
Because The Butler is a historical drama, you brace yourself for the brutal moments you know are coming next—such as the Kennedy assassination. In the film, Cecil is in the White House when it happens. When Jackie Kennedy returns, she gives Cecil the tie her husband was wearing, which he brings home and presents to his family. Almost 50 years later, Cecil wears that very tie to the White House when he goes to meet Barack Obama for the first time.
Jackie Kennedy really did give Allen one of the president’s ties following his death. That tie, however, Allen had framed.
The Lyndon Johnson toilet scene: COULD BE TRUE
One of The Butler’s few episodes of broad comedy comes when President Lyndon Johnson (an appropriately boisterous Liev Schrieber) barks orders at his staff while sitting on the toilet with the door open, capping it all off by asking Cecil to pass him a glass of prune juice.
While Allen doesn’t confirm this story, Johnson reportedly employed the toilet tactic often as an intimidation—and time-saving—tool. It’s extremely likely that Allen, who served Johnson personally, would have borne witness to one such event.
The rapport with the Reagans: TRUE
There’s a particularly stirring moment in The Butler when Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda, of all actresses) intercepts Cecil in the halls of the White House to remind him about an upcoming state dinner. Cecil confirms he’ll be there to serve and begins listing all the preparations he’s already started marking. Nancy Reagan interrupts him, informing him that he and his wife “are coming to the state dinner as guests of President Reagan and myself.” Cecil attends with Gloria; the pride that fills her eyes is one of the film’s biggest tear-jerking moments.
The Allens really were invited by Mrs. Reagan to that state dinner, a memory they fondly recounted in the Post article. “Had champagne that night,” Helene recalled to Haygood during their interview, as her husband grinned.
Campaigning for Obama: TRUE
Cecil leaves his position at the White House during the Reagan administration in The Butler, after which he reunites with son Louis at a protest against apartheid at the South African embassy. The film then fast-forwards a few decades to a jarringly older Cecil and Gloria, who are proudly campaigning for something they thought they’d never see: a man who could become the first black president of the United States.
In the Washington Post article, Eugene and Helene talk about praying for Obama to win the White House. “Just imagine,” Gloria says. “It’d really be something,” he agrees. The tragic twist, however, happened just as it’s portrayed in the movie. Days before Election Day, Helene passed away. The gut-punch of a kicker to Haygood’s article: “The butler cast his vote for Obama on Tuesday. He so missed telling his Helene about the black man bound for the Oval Office.”
Meeting Obama: MOSTLY FICTIONAL
After a two-hour tour through the ugliest moments of the country’s history, The Butler concludes with one of those lump-in-the-throat rousing moments that wins applause at the end of screenings. Wearing the tie given to him by Jackie Kennedy and a tie clip he received from Lyndon Johnson, Cecil is last seen making the same walk he made nearly 60 years earlier when he first interviewed for his job at the White House. This time, he was walking to meet President Obama for the first time.
It’s not clear whether Allen actually met President Obama, but he did attend his swearing-in ceremony, with a VIP invitation, no less. “Eyes watering, he watched the first black man take the oath of office of the presidency,” Haygood wrote in his obituary of Allen in 2010.