Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Lee Daniels|
|Produced by||Pamela Oas Williams
|Written by||Danny Strong|
|Based on||A Butler Well Served by This Election
by Wil Haygood
Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Clarence Williams III
|Music by||Rodrigo Leão|
|Edited by||Joe Klotz|
Laura Ziskin Productions
Windy Hill Pictures
Follow Through Productions
Pam Williams Productions
|Distributed by||The Weinstein Company|
|Box office||$176.6 million|
The Butler (full title Lee Daniels' The Butler) is a 2013 American historical drama film directed and produced by Lee Daniels and written by Danny Strong. Loosely based on the real life of Eugene Allen, the film stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, an African-American who is a witness of notable political and social events of the 20th century during his 34-year tenure serving as a White House butler. In addition to Whitaker, the film's all-star cast also features Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams, and Clarence Williams III. It was the last film produced by Laura Ziskin, who died in 2011.
In 1926, at the age of seven, Gaines is raised on a cotton plantation in Macon, Georgia, by his sharecropping parents. One day, the farm's owner, Thomas Westfall, rapes Cecil's mother, Hattie Pearl. Cecil's father confronts Westfall, and is shot dead. Cecil is taken in by Annabeth Westfall, the estate's caretaker and owner's grandmother, who trains Cecil as a house servant.
In 1937, at age eighteen, he leaves the plantation and his mother, who has been mute since the incident and presumably dies of old age by the time the plantation shuts down. One night, Cecil breaks into a hotel pastry shop and is, unexpectedly, hired. He learns advanced skills from the master servant, Maynard, who, after several years, recommends Cecil for a position in a Washington D.C. hotel. While working at the D.C. hotel, Cecil meets and marries Gloria, and the couple have two sons: Louis and Charlie. In 1957, Cecil is hired by the White House during Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration. White House maître d' Freddie Fallows shows Cecil around, introducing him to head butler Carter Wilson and co-worker James Holloway. At the White House, Cecil witnesses Eisenhower's reluctance to use troops to enforce school desegregation in the South, then his resolve to uphold the law by racially integrating Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.
The Gaines family celebrates Cecil's new occupation with their neighbors, Howard and Gina. Louis, the elder son, becomes a first generation university student at Fisk University in Tennessee, although Cecil feels that the South is too volatile; he wanted Louis to enroll at Howard University instead. Louis joins a student program led by Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) activist James Lawson, which leads to a nonviolent sit-in at a segregated diner, where he is arrested. Furious, Cecil confronts Louis for disobeying him. Gloria, who feels that Cecil puts his job ahead of her, descends into alcoholism and an affair with the Gaines's neighbor, Howard.
In 1961, after John F. Kennedy's inauguration, Louis and a dozen others are attacked by Neo Nazis as well as members of the Ku Klux Klan while traveling on a bus in Alabama. Louis is shown participating in the 1963 Birmingham Children's Crusade, where dogs and water cannons were used to stop the marchers, one of the movement's actions which inspired Kennedy to deliver a national address proposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Several months after the speech, Kennedy is assassinated. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, enacts the transformative legislation into law. As a goodwill gesture, Jackie Kennedy gives Cecil one of the former president's neckties before she leaves the White House.
Louis is later shown participating in the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Movement, which inspired Johnson to demand that Congress enact the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. Johnson also gives Cecil a tie bar.
In the late 1960s, after civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, Louis visits and tells his family that he has joined the Black Panthers. Outraged, Cecil orders Louis and his girlfriend, Carol, to leave his house. Louis is soon arrested, and Carter bails him out. Cecil becomes aware of President Richard Nixon's plans to suppress the movement.
The Gaines' other son, Charlie, confides to Louis that he plans to join the Army in the war in Vietnam. Louis announces that he won't attend Charlie's funeral if he is killed there because while Louis sees Americans as multiple races, Charlie sees the country as one race. A few months later, Charlie is killed and buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Louis does not attend. However, when the Black Panthers resort to violence in response to racial confrontations, Louis leaves the organization and returns to college, earning his master's degree in political science and eventually running for a seat in Congress.
Meanwhile, Cecil confronts his supervisor at the White House over the unequal pay and career advancement provided to the black White House staff. With President Ronald Reagan's support, he prevails, and his professional reputation grows to the point that he and his wife are invited by President and Nancy Reagan to be guests at a state dinner. Yet at the dinner and afterwards, Cecil becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the class divisions in the White House. Finally, after witnessing Reagan's refusal to support economic sanctions against South Africa, he resigns. Afterwards, Cecil and Gloria visit the Georgia plantation where he was raised, which by then had long been abandoned.
Gloria, wanting Cecil to mend his relationship with Louis, reveals to him that Louis has told her that he loves and respects them both. Realizing his son's actions are heroic, Cecil joins Louis at a Free South Africa Movement protest against South African apartheid, and they are arrested and jailed together.
In 2008, Gloria dies shortly before Barack Obama is elected as the nation's first African-American president, a milestone which leaves Cecil and Louis in awe. Two months, two weeks and one day later, Cecil prepares to meet the newly inaugurated President at the White House, wearing the articles he had received from presidents Kennedy and Johnson. A man approaches Cecil and tells him the president is ready and shows him the way to the Oval office. Cecil tells the man that he knows the way and as he walks down the hallway the voices of presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson are heard which later fade away as president Barack Obama's famous "Yes we can" quote can be heard as Cecil walks through the doors of the Oval office.
- Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, the film's main character, who dedicates his life to becoming a professional domestic worker. Michael Rainey, Jr. and Aml Ameen portray Cecil at ages 8 and 15, respectively.
- Gaines' private life
- Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines, Cecil's wife.
- David Oyelowo as Louis Gaines, the Gaines' elder son.
- Elijah Kelley as Charlie Gaines, the Gaines' younger son. Isaac White portrays him at age 10.
- David Banner as Earl Gaines, Cecil's father.
- Mariah Carey as Hattie Pearl, Cecil's mother.
- Terrence Howard as Howard, the Gaines' neighbor who romantically pursues Gloria.
- Adriane Lenox as Gina. Howard's wife.
- Yaya DaCosta as Carol Hammie, Louis' girlfriend.
- Alex Pettyfer as Thomas Westfall, the brutal plantation owner who kills Earl after raping Cecil's mother.
- Vanessa Redgrave as Annabeth Westfall, matron of the plantation.
- Clarence Williams III as Maynard, an elderly man who mentors a young Cecil and introduces him to his profession.
- White House co-workers
- Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Carter Wilson, the fast-talking head butler at the White House
- Lenny Kravitz as James Holloway, a co-worker butler of Cecil's at the White House.
- Colman Domingo as Freddie Fallows, the White House maitre d' who hires Cecil.
- White House historical figures
- Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States.
- James DuMont as Sherman Adams, Eisenhower's White House Chief of Staff.
- Robert Aberdeen as Herbert Brownell, Jr., Eisenhower's Attorney General.
- James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States.
- Minka Kelly as First Lady Jackie Kennedy.
- Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th President of the United States.
- John Cusack as Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States.
- Alex Manette as H. R. Haldeman, Nixon's White House Chief of Staff.
- Colin Walker as John Ehrlichman, Nixon's White House Counsel.
- Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States.
- Jane Fonda as First Lady Nancy Reagan.
- Stephen Rider as Stephen W. Rochon, Barack Obama's White House Chief Usher.
- Civil rights historical figures
- Nelsan Ellis as Martin Luther King, Jr..
- Jesse Williams as civil rights activist James Lawson.
- Danny Strong, the film's screenwriter, appears as a Freedom Bus Journalist.
Danny Strong's screenplay is inspired by Wil Haygood's Washington Post article "A Butler Well Served by This Election".   The project received initial 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. 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 pre-sales. 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 film's title was up for a possible rename due to a Motion Picture Association of America claim from Warner Bros., which had inherited from the defunct Lubin Company a now-lost 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.
Box office performance
In its opening weekend, the film debuted in first place with $24.6 million. The film topped the North American box office in its first three consecutive weeks. The film has grossed $116.6 million in Canada and the United States, it earned $51.1 million elsewhere, for a total of $167.7 million.
The Butler received mostly positive reviews from critics, with a 71% rating on the film critic aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, based on 171 reviews. The site's consensus says, "Gut-wrenching and emotionally affecting, Lee Daniels' The Butler overcomes an uneven narrative 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 47 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." Miles Davis of the New York Tribune gave the film a negative review, claiming the film to be "Oscar bait", a cliche film designed to attract Oscar nominations.
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.
President Barack Obama said, "I teared up thinking about not just the butlers who worked here in the White House, but an entire generation of people who were talented and skilled. But because of Jim Crow and because of discrimination, there was only so far they could go."
Regarding historical accuracy, Eliana Dockterman wrote in Time: "Allen was born on a Virginia plantation in 1919, not in Georgia.... In the movie, Cecil Gaines grows up on a cotton field in Macon, where his family comes into conflict with the white farmers for whom they work. What befalls his parents on the cotton field was added for dramatic effect.... Though tension between father and son over civil rights issues fuels most of the drama in the film, [Eugene Allen's son] Charles Allen was not the radical political activist that Gaines's son is in the movie."
Particular criticism has been directed at the film's accuracy in portraying President Ronald Reagan. While actor Alan Rickman's performance generated positive reviews, the screenwriters of the film have been criticized for depicting Reagan as indifferent to civil rights and his reluctance to associate with the White House's black employees during his presidency. According to Michael Reagan, the former president's son, "The real story of the White House butler doesn't imply racism at all. It's simply Hollywood liberals wanting to believe something about my father that was never there." Paul Kengor, one of President Reagan's biographers, also attacked the film, saying, "I've talked to many White House staff, cooks, housekeepers, doctors, and Secret Service over the years. They are universal in their love of Ronald Reagan." In regard to the president's initial opposition to sanctions against apartheid in South Africa, Kengor said, “Ronald Reagan was appalled by apartheid, but also wanted to ensure that if the apartheid regime collapsed in South Africa that it wasn't replaced by a Marxist-totalitarian regime allied with Moscow and Cuba that would take the South African people down the same road as Ethiopia, Mozambique, and, yes, Cuba. In the immediate years before Reagan became president, 11 countries from the Third World, from Asia to Africa to Latin America, went Communist. It was devastating. If the film refuses to deal with this issue with the necessary balance, it shouldn't deal with it at all."
Political commentator Ben Shapiro wrote: "There is no question that the film itself is full of historical inaccuracies. The Butler has virtually nothing in common with its source material, the life of White House butler Gene Allen, except for the fact that the main character of the film and Allen were both black butlers in the White House. The film's title character, Cecil Gaines, sees his father murdered and his mother raped by a white landowner; that never happened to Allen. The movie's title character has two children, one who goes to the Vietnam War, the other who becomes a Civil Rights pioneer; Allen actually had only one son."
- Backstairs at the White House, a 1979 miniseries with a similar theme
- African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954–68) in popular culture
- Great Migration
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- Official website
- The Butler at the Internet Movie Database
- The Butler at Box Office Mojo
- The Butler at Rotten Tomatoes
- The Butler at Metacritic