Lee Daniels' The Butler

Aug 18, 2013

An entertaining docudrama of recent history about the civil rights movement.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Grade: B

Director: Lee Daniels (Precious)

Screenplay: Danny Strong from Will Haygood article

Cast: Forest Whitaker (The Crying Game), Oprah Winfrey (The Color Purple)

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 132 min.

by John DeSando

“At this moment, my body and soul, to the last hair, belong to my master.” Sebastian (A Black Butler)

The historical sweep of Lee Daniels' The Butler is ambitious, covering the civil rights movement from Eisenhower to Obama through the eyes of White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). Based loosely on the life of black butler Eugene Allen, it is historically moving; it  is also melodramatic.

The essence of the dramatic tension is the troubled relationship of Daniels with his son Louis (David Oyelowo). Because Cecil has worked hard to go from cotton picker to butler for presidents, he cannot indulge his son’s liberal bent to challenge the civil rights abuses that have yet to be stopped by legislation. Serving whitey has been C’s life, whereas his son is a new generation of activists who will not allow KKK-like oppression to rule, South or North.

With cameos by Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson, and Robin Williams as Eisenhower, for example, the star wattage is high while the delicacy of character and historical depth are dimmer. Whenever stars are on screen, the acting is noticeably powerful. When history is on parade, the film becomes a mildly superficial timeline with original footage and re-creations occasionally less than the events they present.

The Butler is at its best when Cecil’s profession is championed by one of Louis’s co-activists, who tells Louis that his dad and other workers in the racist world are moving more subtly toward equality, are actually “subversive.” Daniels expertly lets the two angles of vision, dad and freedom riders, play off each other.

A sound dislike for discrimination prevails the film and a measure of melodrama, aided by Cecil’s mama, played deftly by Oprah Winfrey. Why one of the richest, most powerful women on earth would play a supporting role can be answered best by her relationship as producer to director Daniels’ Precious and her surprisingly nuanced talent as an actress.

As in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, historical figures are a joy to see played. However, when Daniels cuts to Cecil’s domestic life, I fail to catch the importance other than his juxtaposing rebellious son and disappointed dad. When in Hyde Park on Hudson Bill Murray’s FDR meets in private the future King of England, the film takes off into fascinating territory while we appear to be eavesdropping on some of history’s important moments. I would have liked Daniels to stay in the White House for more of that experience.

Although Lee Daniels’ The Butler is not a great film, it is entertaining, with another Oscar-worthy performance from Whitaker, some smart re-creations of history, and prominent actors playing important modern presidents. All the film really needs is the Woodman’s sexy score and his romantic vision of history.

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at Contact him at