Lee Daniels' The Butler

Lee Daniels' The Butler Information

Lee Daniels' The Butler is a 2013 American historical drama film directed by Lee Daniels, written by Danny Strong, and featuring an ensemble cast. Inspired by the real-life account of Eugene Allen, the film stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, an African-American who eyewitnesses notable events of the 20th century during his 34-year tenure serving as a White House butler. It was the last film produced by Laura Ziskin, who died in 2011.

The film was theatrically released by The Weinstein Company on August 16, 2013 to positive reviews.


Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a young boy, is raised by his subservient parents on a Georgia cotton plantation in the 1920s. One day, the farm's temperamental owner, Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer) rapes Cecil's mother, Hattie Pearl (Mariah Carey). Cecil's father (David Banner) retaliates and is shot. Cecil is taken in by Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave), the estate's caretaker, who reassigns Cecil to being a house servant instead. As he grows older, he leaves the Westfall plantation and finds his mother who has been mute since the incident. One night, Cecil breaks into a pastry shop and is hired by the owners. During that occupation, he learns how to work at the establishment from master servant Maynard (Clarence Williams III). In 1957, Maynard recommends Cecil to be a servant in Washington D.C. which Cecil gladly accepts. Ultimately, he is hired by the White House during Dwight D. Eisenhower's (Robin Williams) administration, where he witnesses Eisenhower's attempts to racially integrate a high school in Little Rock in 1954. White House maître d' Freddie Fallows (Colman Domingo) shows Cecil the grounds and introduces him to head butler Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and co-worker James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz)

Cecil eventually marries Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), who had been a maid at the same hotel, and they have two children: Louis and Charlie. The Gaines family celebrates Cecil's new occupation with their closest friends and neighbors, Howard and Gina (Terrence Howard and Adriane Lenox). Louis (David Oyelowo), the eldest son, becomes a first generation university student at Fisk University in Tennessee. Cecil is hesitant about this because he thinks the South is too volatile and tells Louis enroll in another university. Louis joins a student program at Fisk to peacefully engage in a sit-in at segregated public places and is arrested. Furious, Cecil heads to Nashville where he confronts Louis for disobeying him. Gloria, feeling isolated from her husband, has an affair with the Gaines' neighbor, Howard.

In 1961, after John F. Kennedy's (James Marsden) election, Louis and a dozen others are attacked by the Ku Klux Klan while traveling on the freedom riders bus. Cecil is informed of the incident by Kennedy, who subsequently delivers a national address proposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Several months after the speech, Kennedy is assassinated and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber), enacts the transformative legislation into law. As a goodwill gesture, Kennedy's widow Jacqueline (Minka Kelly) presents Cecil with one of the former president's neckties.

In the 1970s, several years after civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr.'s (Nelsan Ellis) assassination, Louis returns home and tells his family that he and a few others have founded a radical organization called the Black Panthers. Aware of Richard Nixon's (John Cusack) plans to suppress the movement and upset at his son's actions, Cecil orders Louis and his girlfriend (Yaya DaCosta) to leave his house. The Gaines' other son, Charlie (Elijah Kelley), confides to Louis that he plans to join American forces in the war in Vietnam, to which Louis admits that he wouldn't attend his funeral if he were to be killed. Indeed, a few months later, the Gaines family hold a funeral for Charlie, which Louis does not attend, much to the dismay of his enraged father. Meanwhile, Cecil's professional reputation has grown to the point that in the 1980s, he is invited by Ronald and Nancy Reagan (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda) as a guest to a state dinner. Cecil realizes that the invitation was just for show, as Reagan plans to veto any Congressional sanctions against South Africa.

Gloria, wanting Cecil to mend his estranged relationship with Louis, reveals to him that Louis once told her that he loved and respected them both. Realizing his son's actions as heroic rather than antagonistic, Cecil quits his job and joins Louis in a protest against South African apartheid.

The film then advances to Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, during which an elderly Gloria dies, shortly before Obama is elected as the nation's first African-American president, a milestone which leaves Cecil and Louis in awe. The film ends with Cecil preparing to meet the inaugurated Obama in the White House.


  • Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, the film's central protagonist, who dedicates his life to becoming a professional domestic worker. Aml Ameen portrays a young Cecil.
Gaines' private life
White House
Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama are depicted in archival footage. Actor Orlando Eric Street also portrays Obama in an uncredited role.

Melissa Leo was cast as First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, but did not appear in the finished film.



Danny Strong's screenplay is inspired by a The Washington Post article "A Butler Well Served by This Election." The project started picking up backing in early 2011, when producers Laura Ziskin and Pam Williams approached Sheila Johnson for help in financing the film. After reading Danny Strong's screenplay, Johnson pitched in her own $2.7 million before getting in several African-American investors. However, Ziskin died from cancer in June 2011. This left director Daniels and producing partner Hilary Shor to look for further producers on their own. They started with Cassian Elwes, with whom they were working on The Paperboy (2012). Elwes joined the list of producers, and started raising funding for the film. In spring 2012, Icon U.K., a British financing and production company, added a $6 million guarantee against foreign presales. Finally the film raised its needed $30 million budget through 41 producers and executive producers , including Earl W. Stafford, Harry I. Martin Jr., Brett Johnson, Michael Finley, and Buddy Patrick. Thereafter,as film production started Weinstein Co. picked up U.S. distribution rights for the film. David Glasser, Weinstein Co. COO, called fund raising as an independent film, "a story that's a movie within itself."

The Weinstein Company acquired the distribution rights for the film after Columbia Pictures put the film in turnaround.

The film's title was up for a possible rename due to a MPAA claim from Warner Bros., which released a 1916 silent short film with the same name. The case was subsequently resolved with the MPAA granting the Weinstein Company permission to add Daniels' name in front of the title, under the condition that his name was "75% the size of The Butler. On July 23, 2013, the distributor unveiled a revised poster, displaying the title as Lee Daniels' The Butler.


The filming started in September 2012, in New Orleans, but was marred by weather delays, which further pushed production costs to $30 million.


Critical response

Lee Daniels' The Butler received mostly positive reviews from critics, with a 72% "Fresh" rating on the film critic aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, based on 116 reviews. The site's consensus says, "Gut-wrenching and emotionally affecting, Lee Daniels' The Butler overcomes an uneven script thanks to strong performances from an all-star cast." Another review aggregator, Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 top reviews from mainstream critics, calculated a score of 66 based on 43 reviews, indicating "generally positive reviews".

Todd McCarthy praised the film saying, "Even with all contrivances and obvious point-making and familiar historical signposting, Daniels' The Butler is always engaging, often entertaining and certainly never dull." Richard Roeper lauded the film's casting in particular, remarking that "Forest Whitaker gives the performance of his career". Rolling Stone also spoke highly of Whitaker writing that his "reflective, powerfully understated performance...fills this flawed film with potency and purpose." Variety wrote that "Daniels develops a strong sense of the inner complexities and contradictions of the civil-rights landscape." USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and noted that "It's inspiring and filled with fine performances, but the insistently swelling musical score and melodramatic moments seem calculated and undercut a powerful story."

Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times was more negative; "An ambitious and overdue attempt to create a Hollywood-style epic around the experience of black Americans in general and the civil rights movement in particular, it undercuts itself by hitting its points squarely on the nose with a 9-pound hammer." Several critics compared the film's historical anecdotes and sentimentality to Forrest Gump.

Box office

In its opening weekend, the film debuted in first place with $24.6 million.

See also

  • Backstairs at the White House, 1979 miniseries with a similar theme
  • Eugene Allen

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