Lee Daniels’ The Butler (PG-13)

Robin Williams and Forest Whitaker in a scene from 'Lee Daniels' The Butler.'
Robin Williams and Forest Whitaker in a scene from 'Lee Daniels' The Butler.'
Anne Marie Fox / THE WEINSTEIN CO.

Movie Info

Rating: * * 1/2

Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard, Yaya Alafia, Robin Williams, Liev Schreiber, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, John Cusack, James Marsden, Mariah Carey, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave.

Director: Lee Daniels.

Screenwriter: Danny Strong. Inspired by The Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served By This Election” by Wil Haygood.

Producers: Pamela Oas Williams, Laura Ziskin, Lee Daniels.

A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 132 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, sexual situations, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.


Lee Daniels’ The Butler is creaky and sentimental and schmaltzy. The movie lacks any of the unhinged qualities of Daniels’ previous films ( The Paperboy, Precious, Shadowboxer). He’s on his best behavior here, because he knows he’s making a prestigious picture, and he plays to the back row, too. The film is about as subtle as a piano falling on your head.

But even though you may roll your eyes at the movie, you can’t dismiss it outright, either. Inspired by a Washington Post article about Eugene Allen, who was the White House’s head butler for 34 years, the movie centers on Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who grew up on a cotton plantation in 1926 where he learned the proper etiquette of the times on serving white people. After witnessing a tragedy, he runs away and gets a series of jobs at luxury hotels, marries the gregarious Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and fathers two sons. His spotless record and experience land him a job interview at the White House in 1957, where he’s hired as part of the kitchen staff and given stern instructions: “You hear nothing. You see nothing. You only serve.”

Beautifully played with grace and restraint by Whitaker, Cecil becomes a silent witness to history under eight administrations. He has at least one important encounter with each president: Eisenhower (Robin Williams), who is dealing with the pushback to forced integration in Arkansas; Kennedy (James Marsden) and first lady Jacqueline (Minka Kelly), whom he helps console after the assassination of her husband; Johnson (Liev Schreiber), who asks Cecil for a glass of prune juice while sitting on the toilet; Nixon (John Cusack), who first appeals to Cecil while vice president in hopes of winning the black vote, then later confides in him shortly before his resignation; and Reagan (Alan Rickman), who is torn about a push by Congress to approve an embargo on South Africa over their apartheid policies. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter don’t make the cut.

Juxtaposed with Cecil’s experiences is the increasingly political life that his eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) is leading, joining the Freedom Riders, attacked by the Ku Klux Klan, participating in protest sit-ins and eventually becoming a militant Black Panther. When he visits his parents for dinner with his girlfriend (Yaya Alafia) and calls Sidney Poitier a “rich Uncle Tom” who acts white, the unflappable Cecil loses his cool and kicks his son out of his home, frustrated by Louis’ inability to understand the subtle strides that are being made towards racial equality.

The film’s cast is huge, including warm turns by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as Cecil’s fellow White House staffers and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, who is the first person to recognize his years of duty and address him as a person instead of an employee. Winfrey leans on her own persona to make Gloria a vivacious, likable woman, but her irritation at her husband’s constant absence due to his work duties and a potential affair with a neighbor (Terrence Howard) all feel like padding, a way to round out her character as something other than the protagonist’s wife.

Even though every frame in the movie screams Oscar-bait, the picture is never boring, and its sweeping depiction of the Civil Rights movement, albeit necessarily truncated, keeps the narrative moving. Daniels only loses control near the end, when some bone-headed decisions (including some unintentionally amusing track suits and unconvincing old-age makeup) rob the climax of its power. There are moments, too, when you can feel Daniels holding back and keeping himself in check, because any trace of vulgarity or shock value (two of his favorite storytelling tools) would disrupt the film’s respectable veneer. Still, when compared to something as patronizing and manipulative as Forrest Gump, Lee Daniels’ The Butler comes off as a heartfelt, genuine crowd-pleaser with history on its side.

Read more Reeling with Rene Rodriguez stories from the Miami Herald

Chris Evans (center) and Jamie Bell (left) are about to crack some skulls aboard a speeding bullet train in “Snowpiercer.”

    Snowpiercer (R)

    In the near future, mankind attempts to solve the growing problem of global warming by shooting a missile into space that will lower the planet’s thermostat. Instead, the device plunges Earth into another ice age, killing all life except for the people on a huge bullet train that has been circling the globe for 17 years (don’t ask, just go with it).

 <span class="cutline_leadin">‘We are the best!’: </span> Mira Barhammar, Mira Grosin and Liv LeMoyne team up to form a punk rock band.

    We Are the Best! (unrated)

    Much like its title implies, We Are the Best! is a lively, feel-good lark from Swedish director Lukas Moodysson, who returns to the upbeat vibe of his early films (Show Me Love, Together) with an altogether new kind of exuberance (the exclamation mark in the title is well-earned). Set in 1982 Stockholm, the film centers on two misfit best friends, Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin), who are mocked by their schoolmates for their punk hairstyles and androgynous looks (“Just go die somewhere!” one mean girl tells them).

 <span class="cutline_leadin">‘Transformers: Age of Extinction”:</span> Mark Wahlberg plays hide and seek with a giant robot.

    Transformers: Age of Extinction (PG-13)

    Everything you learned in science class about dinosaurs turns out to have been wrong. The prehistoric creatures weren’t killed off by global warming or a meteor smashing into Earth: In the opening minutes of Transformers: Age of Extinction, we learn it was Michael Bay and his computer-generated aliens who wiped the creatures out. If the rest of this visually stunning, technically impressive and crushingly dumb and overlong picture doesn’t also quite kill off the cinematic art entirely, at least it sends you home feeling like you won’t be going back to a movie theater for a good while.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category