A fictional tale inspired by a real-life White House butler, this Lee Daniels movie steps not just into the racial divide of our country's last century, but also the relational divide between a father and son.
It began with Eisenhower. It ended with Reagan.
Through seven administrations, Cecil Gaines worked as a butler in the White House, serving the most powerful men in the free world. He served coffee. Polished shoes. Set the table. He was trained to be part of the decor, another piece of furniture, as it were. The room should feel "empty when I'm in it," he says. Sometimes he would speak—but only if asked.
He was there to serve. And he served well.
Cecil's son Louis, though, is done serving. As his father gave John F. Kennedy his pain pills, Louis was getting arrested for sitting at the whites-only counter in segregated diners. As Cecil waited on Lyndon B. Johnson in the bathroom, Louis followed Martin Luther King Jr. And when Richard Nixon decided to crack down on the militant Black Panthers, Cecil heard the order with a sinking heart—because he knew his son was one of them.
For decades this father and his son were estranged. Louis was a radical, Cecil thought, a hotheaded young man who pushed the system too hard. Cecil was an Uncle Tom, Louis believed, a simpering servant who refused to fight for change.
But perhaps the racial progress made over those decades was made through both men—and both types of men. One brashly pushing for greater equality through protests and civil disobedience, the other gently nudging through quiet excellence and a servant's heart. One loudly forcing the country to face racial prejudice, the other quietly and respectfully requesting it.
"We have no tolerance for politics at the White House," Cecil is told his first day on the job. The servants are not to take part in political discussions. They're here to be unobtrusive, almost invisible. They are here to serve.
And there is, indeed, a beauty in such service—a certain dignity and honor in doing an often unnoticed job and doing it well. Cecil feels that sense of honor. For most of his time in the White House, he enjoys serving others, taking pride in what he does. And well he should: Jesus Himself, after all, came to serve, which means that, in at least this way, Cecil is a man after Christ's own heart.
Cecil has little use for Louis' activism—in part because he saw his own father gunned down for daring to even quietly question his white overseer. So for years, Cecil and Louis barely talk. But eventually the father grows to see his son not as a rabble-rouser, but a hero. Louis peacefully protests segregation in the South, rides Freedom Busses and participates in sit-ins. Over and over again he's arrested and beaten for his troubles. And while he does fall in with the Black Panthers for a time, he parts with the organization as it turns more militant, continuing his personal campaign for equal rights through more irenic means.
Thus, even though Cecil and Louis are at loggerheads throughout most of the film, The Butler manages to do both justice. It even suggests that it's through their strange synergy—the push for equality in the Southern streets paired with quiet dignity in the White House—that profound changes are instigated. A president might watch the news, for instance, aghast at a firebombed Freedom Bus—and then ask Cecil if his son is safe. Kennedy, for one, goes so far as to look up Louis' arrest record. And then he turns to his ever-loyal, ever-patient butler and makes a somber, personal connection.
"You know, I never understood what you all went through until I saw that," the president admits.
It's important to note that The Butler treats almost everyone it focuses on with some sympathy, even while digging at their flaws (real or perceived, accurate or fictional). Democrat Lyndon Johnson is portrayed as a blowhard—but he's given props for enacting sweeping civil rights changes. Republican Ronald Reagan is not seen here as an advocate for civil rights—but he's shown as a kind, well-meaning man who ensures equal pay for all White House servants, be they black or white.
That makes The Butler a guardedly optimistic movie, if not a historically studious one. It tells us that people can change—while duly reckoning with the reality that it sometimes requires many sacrifices and a great deal of time for those change to come.
Cecil and wife Gloria are religious folk, though they're not particularly outspoken about their faith. It's implied that they go to church and read the Bible, and three crosses are placed above their fireplace mantel. A gospel choir sings in a church, and God is invoked several times … for good and bad reasons.
By implication we see that Gloria carries on an affair with her neighbor, Howard (who is also married). We never see them in bed together, but he intimately loiters in her house when Cecil's away, and when Gloria says they shouldn't be doing this to Cecil, Howard says, "I ain't doing this to Cecil. I'm doing it to you." When he says God brought them together, Gloria retorts, "God ain't got nothing to do with this."
Shortly thereafter, Cecil and Gloria seem to repair their ragged relationship. They cuddle in bed and laugh together again. And years later, celebrating Cecil's birthday, the two flirt in the living room, trading lovingly suggestive double entendres. In another scene, Gloria briefly tries to intice an uninterested Cecil.
Louis, meanwhile, is shown sitting in bed, shirtless, with another woman (who's wearing nightclothes). They're not in a sexual situation, but the suggestion is that the unmarried couple have such a relationship.
Another White House butler tells a very rough and obscene joke about a woman's vagina, and he makes off-handed references to women he's bedded, to masturbation and to sexual defecation. A man at a hotel worries that blacks and whites may soon be "fornicating" with one another. A crack is made about being raped in prison. A man plays around with shaping dough into a breast. Couples kiss. Women show cleavage.
A young Cecil watches as a white overseer leads his unwilling mother to a shed. From behind its walls, we hear screams as she's raped. When the white man comes out, Cecil's father makes only a single, small (quiet) verbal move to question the man's heinous actions—and is gunned down, a bloody hole left in his forehead.
We see two lynched men hanging grotesquely (their faces bloody and necks ravaged by the rope). Protestors are abused and roughed up at a Nashville diner; some are thrown to the floor and kicked. Louis has hot coffee tossed in his face. While in jail, he sports several rough bruises. A Freedom Bus he's riding in has its windows broken as the KKK throws Molotov cocktails into the vehicle.
We learn that Cecil's younger son Charlie dies in Vietnam. We see Jackie Kennedy weeping after her husband is assassinated, her legs and dress covered with blood. Cecil walks through riots triggered by Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder, as store windows are shattered and people are beaten. A Black Panther advocates violence against whites.
Cecil physically confronts Louis a couple of times, and Louis' mother slaps him hard for disrespecting his father. We hear about an adulterous man getting shot by a jealous husband.
Crude or Profane Language
The f-word is fully used once, and another time it trails off when used in combination with "mother." The s-word is said a dozen times. (Other expletives seem to be intentionally covered by the clanking of dishes or hammering in the background.) The n-word is used as many as 40 times—sometimes casually, but more often spit out as a hateful slur to forcibly illustrate the pain it causes. "Coon" is also used to demean African-Americans. God's name is abused a dozen times (often with "d‑‑n"); Jesus' is misused once. Vulgarities include "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "h‑‑‑" and "p‑‑‑."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Gloria has a drinking problem. When she and Cecil are younger, they primarily drink in social settings with neighbors and friends. But as Cecil spends more and more time at work, Gloria grows dependent on the bottle, often getting visibly drunk. She does kick the habit eventually. And when Cecil jokes that they should go out drinking for his birthday, she gives him a sour look and primly reminds him that she doesn't drink.
She has one relapse that we hear about: After her son dies, she drinks herself nearly into a coma, so badly intoxicated that she passes out and soils herself on the kitchen floor. We learn that Louis finds her there and cleans her up—and then tells her she's the best mother a guy could have.
Alcohol, meanwhile, flows freely both inside and outside the White House, with people drinking martinis, champagne, beer, wine and cocktails. Cecil impresses the White House maître d' with his knowledge of Cognac. Nixon, in the heart of the Watergate investigation, has a drunken conversation with Cecil. Several characters, including Cecil and Gloria, smoke cigarettes.
Other Negative Elements
Young and hungry, Cecil breaks a window to snatch and eat some cake. We hear about gambling.
People discuss urination. LBJ is shown sitting on a toilet, grunting, giving orders and asking Cecil to hand him some prune juice.
The Butler was inspired by the real story of Eugene Allen, a man who served in the White House even longer than the fictional Cecil Gaines. According to a Washington Post profile, Allen was chummier with the presidents than even Cecil—talking golf with Gerald Ford and receiving a personal invitation to a state dinner and to JFK's funeral.
The resulting onscreen story is one that carries with it an undercurrent of spirituality—evidenced by The Weinstein Company inviting faith leaders to see the flick and publishing a faith-based "film companion" for the movie. Says David Oyelowo (who plays Louis) in the pamphlet:
"At the heart of Lee Daniels' The Butler is a father/son story reminiscent of the Bible's Prodigal Son story. The butler's son leaves home to chart his own course in reaction to the path his father has chosen. Though the two don't see eye-to-eye over many decades, a love that transcends their ideals draws them back together in a way that only sacrificial love can."
It's as Cecil says onscreen, "I don't think God meant for people not to have a family."
This is a sometimes gritty and fictional-minded movie, with violence and drunkenness and obscenities and troubling-but-true-to-life racial slurs. It is also a loving movie, dedicated to the very same values Martin Luther King Jr. was devoted to. Indeed, as the film opens, we read a quote from King. "Darkness cannot drive out darkness," he said. "Only light can do that." And it is light—the harsh light of truth Louis wields, the soft light of grace and kindness and, yes, servitude Cecil carries—that in turn serves The Butler well.