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Movie Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

August 23, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler PosterLee Daniels’ The Butler – An eOne Films’ Release

Release Date: August 16th, 2013

Rated 14A for language and disturbing content

Running time: 132 minutes

Lee Daniels (dir.)

Danny Strong (writer)

Based on an article by Wil Haygood

Rodrigo Leão (music)

Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines

Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines

David Oyelowo as Louis Gaines

Elijah Kelley as Charlie Gaines

Terrence Howard as Howard

Cuba Gooding Jr. as Carter Wilson

Lenny Kravitz as James Holloway

Alex Pettyfer as Thomas Westfall

Vanessa Redgrave as Annabeth Westfall

Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower

James Marsden as John F. Kennedy

Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson

John Cusack as Richard Nixon

Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan

Lee Daniels' The Butler

©eOne Films.  All Rights Reserved.

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) serves at the White House in Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

Our reviews below:


Lee Daniels’ The Butler Review By John C.

***1/2 (out of 4)

Emotionally affecting and ultimately inspirational, Lee Daniels’ The Butler plays incredibly well with a crowd and it’s easy to see why the film has been winning the box office.  This is an engaging historical drama that is carried by an excellent cast, and also one of the best movies of the summer.

Growing up on a cruel cotton farm and trained by the elderly Annabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) to be a servant, the life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) changes alongside the course of history when he is hired to be a butler at the White House.  Not allowed to share his own political opinions, even when issues are being discussed that directly effect his race, he is loyal to the job so that he can support his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and their two sons Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley).  Louis is a driving force behind the civil rights movement, even spending time in jail as both a Freedom Rider and a Black Panther, much to the distress of his father.

Through encounters with Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams), John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber), Richard Nixon (John Cusack) and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman), we really get a sense of how things have changed over the years.  The presidents are all drawn with interesting shades of grey, even at times when their ideas are an unfortunate representation of the period in time.  Loosely based on a true story, the screenplay by Danny Strong does a good job of illustrating the politics of each era, leading up to the victorious election of Barack Obama in 2008.  Adding the director’s name to the title after a recent lawsuit from Warner Bros. on behalf of a 1916 short film of the same name, Lee Daniels’ The Butler deserves to be part of the conversation for multiple reasons.

Forest Whitaker is excellent as a man shaped by the same politics that his son helps change, and it’s an understated and quietly moving performance that beautifully carries the movie.  Oprah Winfrey delivers a memorable supporting role as his wife, faithfully staying by his side, even when the temptation of alcohol gets in the way.  There are also many powerful scenes with their son Louis, who stands up against the rampant racism of the country, even if it means putting his life on the line.  Throughout one memorably moving sequence, we see Louis taking part in a sit-in at a bigoted local diner, intercut with scenes of Cecil preparing the dining room at the White House.  This is powerful stuff.

There are several beautifully edited sequences, all set to an excellent soundtrack of classic songs, leading up to the genuinely moving final few scenes.  With an excellent ensemble cast and an involving story, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is an incredibly powerful film that provides a moving testimony to everyone who stood for equality during the civil rights movement.


Lee Daniels’ The Butler Review by Erin V.

***1/2 (out of 4)

Spanning from the 1920s to almost present day, Lee Daniels’ The Butler tells the [inspired by a] true story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), butler to the White House.  From the 1950s to ’80s, Mr. Gaines served in the White House through eight Presidents, and momentous changes as the Civil Rights movement pushed for equal rights for African American citizens.

The movie takes liberties to add parts to the story in order to showcase the most elements it can from the era, including Vietnam, the Black Panthers, and Freedom Riders.  But the film works beautifully and is carried by strong performances all around.  While the Presidents are largely played by such recognizable actors that makes it a little hard to view them completely in character, they all do a good job.  Besides, the film is really focussed on Cecil Gaines’ story and it is his family and those who work with him that are on the screen the most.  The makeup as they age these actors through the ages is very well done, and the editing between scenes at times (one scene between the setting of a table at the White House and a sit-in protest at a diner in particular) is quite effective.

Much like The Help (which opened in a similar time slot two years ago), Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a real crowdpleaser that is carried by moving performances that really capture the film’s emotion.  The film is definitely worth seeing.


Lee Daniels’ The Butler Review by Nicole

**** (out of 4)

Loosely inspired by the little known story of Eugene Allen, Lee Daniels’ The Butler tells the history of black civil rights through one man’s eyes.  The star of the movie is Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a presidential butler who has seen it all.

Cecil’s journey begins as a child on a cotton plantation, where a white sharecropper (Alex Pettyfer) rapes his mom (not shown), and kills his dad (shown in a restrained way).  The elderly owner (Vanessa Redgrave) takes the traumatized boy in and trains him as a servant.  After leaving the plantation at fifteen, Cecil becomes a bartender, and later works for a hotel filled with bigots.

The film moves to 1957.  Cecil is now a father with two kids, Louis and Charlie, and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey).  Then he gets a job working for President Eisenhower (Robin Williams), along with fellow butlers Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz).  His job lasts through eight presidents, including John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), Lyndon B. Johnson (Live Schreiber), Richard Nixon (John Cusack) and Ronald Reagen (Alan Rickman), as well as the ones in-between who aren’t shown.

The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s plays a crucial role in this story.  While Cecil has learned to lay low when things get tough, his son Louis (David Oyelowo) is an activist, much to his dismay.  In one powerful sequence, we see a contrast between Cecil’s table setting and Louis’ sit-in protest at a diner.  While Cecil’s work is deceptively calm, Louis and his friends are being tortured by bullies who don’t like black people sitting in the white section.  These protests bring back too many painful memories for Cecil, so out of fear, he disowns his son.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a sure Oscar contender.  The screenplay and performances are excellent.  I was completely engaged throughout the film, which is emotionally moving, fascinating, sad, happy at times and ultimately hopeful and empowering.  The film ends with the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, a sign that the African American Civil Rights movement has been a success.  However, the fight for civil rights is not over.  As we saw with Trayvan Martin’s death last year, it’s clear that racism and bigotry still exist.  Lee Daniels’ The Butler will inspire a whole new generation to take up the fight and stand up for civil rights issues today.


Lee Daniels’ The Butler Review by Maureen

***1/2 (out of 4)

In order to succeed as a butler at the White House, a man must have impeccable attention to detail and the discipline to keep eyes and ears open at all times, yet see and hear nothing and most importantly keep opinions to himself.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler, loosely based on the life of former White House butler Eugene Allen, focuses on an African American man named Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) who dutifully served as butler to a long list of Presidents, including Eisenhower (Robin Williams), John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), Lyndon B. Johnson (Live Schreiber), Richard Nixon (John Cusack) and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman).

The movie is narrated and told in flashbacks by Cecil, now in his nineties.  The story begins in 1926 on a cotton plantation in Macon, Georgia where as a young boy Cecil witnesses his father (David Banner) get killed by the plantation owner when he tries to avenge the sexual assault of his wife.  The traumatized boy is given refuge in the main house by the elderly homeowner (Vanessa Redgrave), who trains him to be a proper house servant.  Cecil’s training pays off when he ends up in Washington, D.C. working at the Excelsior Hotel as a bartender.  His hard work gets noticed by White House politicians and Cecil gets hired by the White House.

The movie provides some interesting parallel scenes between the cultured, elite world in the White House and Cecil’s family life in the real world, a world where blacks still didn’t have the same civil rights as whites.  Cecil’s wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) finds it hard to cope with his long hours at work and drinks to pass the time.  Their oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo) finds it hard to watch his father work as a glorified servant to rich white men.  His eventual involvement as an activist in the civil rights movement leads to his estrangement from his family, particularly his father.  Younger son Charlie (Elijah Kelley) decides to “fight for his country” rather than “fight his country” and enlists in the Vietnam war.

The scenes showing Louis’ activism are powerful and hard to watch.  The scene where the Freedom Riders stage a sit-in at the whites only counter at a Woolworths is especially moving.  There are so many scenes in this movie where the historical reality of the civil rights movement is heartbreaking.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is carried by the outstanding performances by the lead actors.  Forest Whitaker says so much as the dedicated butler in the many scenes where his character isn’t able to verbally express his thoughts and emotions.  Oprah Winfrey is brilliant as his often frustrated wife.  David Oyelowo brings a determined energy to his strong-minded character.  While the various Presidents come in and out of the story to show the passage of time, each of the actors manage to capture something of the core character of the President they are portraying.  Each of them are believably that President.

It’s hard not to become emotionally invested in Cecil Gaines’ story.  Lee Daniels’ The Butler allows the viewer to witness a man age and change along with the political climate.  The civil rights years were a powerful time in American and world history, and Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a powerful movie.  See this one.


Lee Daniels’ The Butler Review by Tony

*** (out of 4)

The Butler, featuring Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, a White House butler who served eight presidents from 1952 (Truman’s last year) until 1986 (under Reagan). While the loyal Gaines quietly observed the presidents in their most candid and vulnerable moments, his fictional wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and two sons Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley) found themselves involved in some of the pivotal events in black history, including freedom bus rides, right to vote legislation, Black Panthers and Viet Nam war.

Directed by Lee Daniels, The Butler provides a good overview of the period, handling historical events with sensitivity and nice attention to detail, and a sweet epilogue where the retired Gaines is invited to share in the celebration of Obama’s election. The strong African American cast includes Clarence Williams III, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Mariah Carey, and some quirky presidential roles: Robin Williams (Eisenhower), James Marsden (JFK), Liev Schreiber (LBJ), John Cusack (Nixon) and Alan Rickman (Reagan).


Consensus: With a strong cast led by powerful performances from Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is an emotionally engaging historical drama that provides a moving and inspirational experience.  ***1/2 (Out of 4)

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