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We've Read It! Thoughts On Lee Daniels' 'The Butler' Script

by Vanessa Martinez
June 13, 2012 10:45 AM
  • |
Eugene Allen
Eugene Allen

I was fortunate once again (see my write-up on Steve McQueen 12 Years A Slave script HERE) to have the opportunity to read the script for the Lee Daniels’ highly-anticipated period drama The Butler (a September 2011 draft).

We have been updating you on the film’s developments frequently in the past months, mostly of its impressive cast. Some of those posts have, not surprisingly, stirred up heated debate in the comments section.

It’s directed by a black man; and, obviously, there are a lot of expectations for Daniels follow-up to the 2008 success of Precious. Not only that, but we know the film is based on the life of Eugene Allen, an African American who worked as a butler in the White House for over 34 years, serving 8 presidents from 1952 to 1986. Many immediately drew comparisons to last year’s The Help, and understandably so, given the information revealed about the film until very recently.

The cast has been shaping up to be quite impressive to say the least: Forest Whitaker as the butler, Oprah Winfrey as his wife Gloria, David Oyelowo as their son Louis, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Liam Neeson as Lyndon B. Johnson, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan and Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy. The likes of Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard have also joined, although we don’t know which roles they’ll get to play yet.

I won’t spoil the film and spill too many details, but hopefully I will clarify a few things, and, hopefully, you will be as excited as I am to see the finished film.

The film is actually inspired, not based, by a 2008 Washington Post article by Wil Haygood titled A Butler Well Served by This Election (read it HERE); that article, as mentioned in our post back in April, pretty much summarizes Mr. Allen's many years of service in the White House, leading up to President Obama's election.

But even if you’ve read that Washington Post article, don’t expect a faithful adaptation from the few details revealed by the late Mr. Allen. Allen had one child with his wife; The Butler’s Gaines has two children: Louis and Charles. The names have been changed; our Butler is Cecil Gaines, and Daniels takes some major creative liberties to develop the narrative, which is compelling, riveting and not what you’d expect.

It’s definitely a tearjerker; it certainly had that effect on me. However, it wasn’t until after I’d read a little over half of it that I started to succumb to its full impact. Don’t get me wrong, the opening scene, in which 8-year old Cecil is picking cotton in Georgia alongside his mother and father, is abominably shocking; it depicts the unimaginable horrors of racial injustice southern Blacks faced, well after the emancipation of slavery, working the fields in the south in the early 20th century.

But, soon after, an obviously traumatized young Cecil, begins training at a young age as a “house nigger.” And, most likely, as a survival strategy –mental, emotional, and physical- he became an exceptional servant, one who took pride in his work.

Recall our post from April, in which Whitaker revealed details about Oyelowo’s role of his character’s son, saying Oyelowo will play an activist who is repeatedly arrested. My character is a conformist, but in his own way, he influences presidents. Eugene becomes more active, particularly at the end of his life, when he makes a decision to fight.”

To answer the question of whether Oyelowo’s role is minor, well, it’s definitely NOT; it’s the second most prominent role in the film, aside from Whitaker’s.

To borrow from Tambay’s post, in which our editor stated, Reads like it'll maybe be more of a struggle between generations on how to deal with the racism blacks experienced in this country over those 34 years - the pacifist older father's approach versus the rebellious younger son's radicalism. And eventually, the father maybe comes over to the son's side of things, or they meet each other in the middle.”

Ding, ding ding! That’s really it folks! BUT, it’s not as simple as it sounds; those developments involve a lot of hardship and tragedy in this drama. The only criticism I could potentially have is that the film may be in danger of being an overacted, heavy-handed mess IF the direction and acting falter. It also runs the risk of being ridiculed if one of the presidents' characterizations is off or exaggerated. Hopefully, these skilled actors will deliver some of their finest performances. I kept imagining them in their respective roles, at least the ones we know of, and I’m optimistic they will deliver.

Another important detail to get right will be the make-up, as almost the whole cast will age several decades. Other actors would definitely have to be cast for the young Whitaker/Cecil and Oprah/Gloria.

As far as prominent Black characters left to be cast, there’s his other son Charles – from child to adult, his oldest son’s Louis/Oyelowo’s girlfriend, the other butlers/kitchen staff and Cecil and Gloria’s close friends; Oh! And Dr. Martin Luther King.  

So, it’s not what I expected. At one point while reading the script, I was afraid it would veer into a Hollywood feel good formula, but it didn’t. There will be some amusing and charming moments for sure, but it’s very much a drama, and you’ll be glad to know the butler and his son are our heroes. By the way, expect a long film. 

As far as the rating, I understand Lee’s struggle to try to keep a PG-13 rating (see our post here). There’s definitely violence, foul language and a little nudity in the script.

Although it’s not literally based on Allen’s life, it certainly was/is the story of many Black men and women during the Civil Rights Era, Black Panther Movement, Vietnam War to Obama’s election. And, like I said, it's a tearjerker, not only because of the tragedies the butler and his family undergo, but because you will be transported into time, and through this very personal story, you'll experience history, specifically African American history, and its horrors, fears, anger, resentments, triumphs and joys. The narrative is heartfelt, affecting, and it ultimately rings true.

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  • Les | August 29, 2013 1:22 PMReply

    Factual error: this is NOT Daniels' followup to Precious. He directed the poorly-received The Paperboy in 2012.

  • Mike Daniel | August 17, 2013 4:49 PMReply

    You should read my script A CIRCLE IN THE WATER ( A Nicholls Fellowship 2010 Quarterfinalist) that is pretty damn near what this is, starts in GA with a farming family and racism, covers the story of civil rights movement from Bus Boycotts to the Bridge Edmund Pettis and ends with Obamas election.....annoying

  • LLPR | September 22, 2012 11:56 PMReply

    Oprah Winfrey , Jane Fonda, pave the way to activist humanism Grace Baine typecasted in the maid role again?. film imagery has the power to create new perspectives it's our duty to show generations that differences in gender or race should not stand in the way of progress. Beyond the short scope of slavery it's human compassion, failures and the importance of every human in the washington puzzle is what bring this script success Kudos Lee Daniels

  • Fidel23 | June 15, 2012 12:03 AMReply

    So I guess it's safe to say that this year, and next, is the year of SLAVERY in film?

  • CareyCarey | June 14, 2012 3:32 PMReply

    Drive-by OBJECTION! (("the Holocaust is not nearly important to American hisory")). That's not true. (("we cannot ignore slavery films...the hollywood makes no apology about creating a Holocaust film or doc every year so why should it be viewed differently when it comes to our story")). True and not true. Hollywood makes no apology, yes, however, "SLAVERY" is NOT "our" story. (("If the poor representations of black girls and women in Precious was not enough to put me off any Lee Daniels' film")). Stop, that's very porous thinking. Please explain the dynamics of "poor representation" in the context of telling a story as written? If a character was raped... if a mother was abusive... if the daughter contracted aids... if a room full of young girls needed tudoring... are all parts of the story, who bares the blame, Lee Daniels?! (("Daniels is all about shocking/titillating the audience, which is one of the reasons I'm not a fan of his (hack) writing/directing. As for the source of AV's gendered hostility, who knows. But his attempts to pit black women/actresses against black men/actors is beyond stale")). Another shocking and totally misguided comment. First, shocking and titilating an audience should never be viewed as a bad thing. The best film directors try to engage our every emotion. The ones who do that the best... are the best. I'd suggest each individual look back at the movies they loved and find what emotions were stimulated? I think it's safe to say there were over 30 or more that touched you in various fashions. Some emotions have short lives (i.e, surprised, scared), yet others last long after we've retired to our places of comfort (i.e, love, sadness, remorse, etc). Also, imo, AV does not have a gendered hostility, nor would I classify him as "misogynistic". From what I've read over the year, he simply gives a counter opinion to some of the ambiguous and incorrect opinions on matters pretaining to interracial couples, black women and black men in films. And, he generally brings enough supporting information that always gives merit to his opinion. Some have a problem with that because they may refuse to look at the issue from a different perspective. (("2013 might be an interesting year for film")). YES! (("What happened to just everyday life stories rooted in the present?")). Excuse me, where did they go? Are they not still around? Lastly, until the notion/belief/agenda/myth that films play a monumental part in the development of nations, states, racism, political governments/poverty/ incarceration rates/ self image, etc, and the developement of our young men, women and children, we will continue along this hampster wheel, chasing the illusive "right" film that tells the world exactly who we are. It's a fool's play to believe films shape the major decisions "anyone" makes in their lifetime. A person's life habits, mores, priniciples, values structure, respect, education, etc, are simply not shaped by films. Granted, some... let me repeat... some films have a specific "agenda", yet again, it would be foolish to suggest, or champion, any film as the defining force behind shaping the minds of millions. Many would have you believe differently, but they can never bring a shred of evidence and/or concrete proof to back their self serving opinion.

  • bondgirl | June 14, 2012 12:40 PMReply

    The script is good, and unexpected. It'll be interesting to see Oyolewo as a Black Panther. 2013 might be an interesting year for film.

  • Peace | June 14, 2012 11:21 AMReply

    we cannot ignore slavery films...the hollywood makes no apology about creating a Holocaust film or doc every year so why should it be viewed differently when it comes to our story. I am all for it but it has to resonate in a strong way and not suffer from melodrama of over acting in tense scenes, subtle tones and advanced director choices. Lee is going for oscar gold on this one. I don't think he is that great of a director however he always seems to get good acting in his moves which make up for his directorial flaws. Lets see and lets wish him well

  • AccidentalVisitor | June 14, 2012 12:00 AMReply

    Gonna go with Akimbo on this. Don't get why black people want slavery to be ignored in films. Considering how many Americans learn the little they know about history through films, I think we need more exploration of the topic actually. Hollywood has done far more about the Holocaust than slavery and, no offense, the Holocaust is not nearly important to American hisory. In factt you can say that it is not part of American history at all. Not enough movies have dealt with the Civil Rights truggle, the Jim Crow era, Reconstruction, etc. While I have issues with a film like 'The Help" you can't deny it gave voices to characters whose rarely got extensive screen time in films before. These storylines haven't been truly mined yet so why be upset if the topics are being explored in upcoming films?

  • turner | June 13, 2012 6:16 PMReply

    Lee Daniels? Meh....

  • Fidel23 | June 14, 2012 11:59 PM

    HA! Truth. I'll repeat, "meh".

  • Orville | June 13, 2012 6:02 PMReply

    Well at least there are black people like Dee Rees out there doing something different.
    I think the public needs to demand more because it is depressing that the only movies that get mainstream attention are always in relation to race. There is more to being black than just dealing with racism and oppression.

    I would love to see Tracy Edmonds movie about E Lynn Harris gay novel Invisible Live get made.
    I am not against movies being made about oppression but I think in the twenty first century there are more to our lives than racism, slavery, and being the help.
    Pariah didn't get the marketing push that Brokeback Mountain got by Focus Features. I think Focus Features really dropped the ball on Pariah the movie was only got limited release and grossed $500,000 dollars or something like that.

  • c | June 14, 2012 11:23 AM

    I agree... we a are nuanced bunch of flock

  • Katie | June 13, 2012 5:52 PMReply

    If the poor representations of black girls and women in Precious was not enough to put me off any Lee Daniels' film, you had to mention Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard. There is no way in H3ll I would support these two financially.

  • Barbara | September 27, 2012 9:35 PM

    Cuba Gooding and Terrence Howard are the only reason I will NOT support this film. Those self-hating anti-Black clowns.

  • Katie | June 14, 2012 5:39 PM

    "Again exactly what did Cuba Gooding do to deserve such animosity?" Excuse you? Cuba Gooding kisses white people's rears in the worst way, has a problem Black women, and is a self hater. Do a google search and see why that fool's Black card has LONG been revoked. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard aren't even fit to be in Birth of a Nation.

  • misha | June 14, 2012 12:54 AM

    BTW - there are a lot of books... Daniels chose that one...>>> Exactly. Just as he chose to play up certain disturbing aspects of the book even more. Daniels is all about shocking/titillating the audience, which is one of the reasons I'm not a fan of his (hack) writing/directing. As for the source of AV's gendered hostility, who knows. But his attempts to pit black women/actresses against black men/actors is beyond stale.

  • Nadine | June 14, 2012 12:17 AM

    Women do not overtly ignore that fact, @ACCIDENTALVISITOR... it's that there is next to no balance. Black men, whether in the arena of film/tv, sports, music/entertainment have an exponentially greater opportunities to have layered representations. As a Black woman, up until this year, we got a really short end of the stick (at least this year, we're not quite moving backwards...for now). I cannot, for the life of me, ever get the source of your continued gendered animosity. BTW - there are a lot of books... Daniels chose that one...

  • AccidentalVisitor | June 14, 2012 12:06 AM

    Also "Precious" arguably presented an overly negative representation of black people in general, not just black women and girls. It is amazing how some women flat out ignore that. You think the rapist black father was anything to brag about? Nonetheless instead of blaming Daniels for that (and I'm no fan of the guy), you should direct your ire towards the "talented" female novelist who came up with that gem of a tale

  • AccidentalVisitor | June 13, 2012 11:51 PM

    Again exactly what did Cuba Gooding do to deserve such animosity?

  • Chris | June 13, 2012 3:58 PMReply

    I'm always interested in complex generational struggles (take Daughters of the Dust for example)... I just wish it were someone like Dee Rees and not Lee Daniels directing The Butler. I really, really wanted to like Precious, but still too heavy-handed for my taste. Sorry, bro!

  • Blues Keep Rocking | June 13, 2012 4:43 PM

    Dee Rees is still an amateur at best, as proven by her camerawork in "Pariah". Wendell B Harris, Jr should direct it.

  • troy | June 13, 2012 11:35 AMReply

    Can we get these scripts like Django Unchained if youve read them already.

  • Jeremy | June 13, 2012 11:10 AMReply

    This is all great to hear. I do hope it's full potential is realized.
    "The only criticism I could potentially have is that the film may be in danger of being an overacted, heavy-handed mess IF the direction and acting falters."
    I wonder if this concern stems from what we already know and have seen from Lee Daniels. He doesn't tend to work his 'subtlety' muscle.

  • The black police | June 13, 2012 11:04 AMReply

    Blah. What happened to just everyday life stories rooted in the present? The Help. The Butler. 12 Years A Slave. Django. Clearly we are obsessed with slavery and servitude.

  • the black police | June 13, 2012 8:10 PM

    Well, it's true that these are not the only four films to be made featuring blacks. Blah, I guess I'll just speak with my dollars and attention when it comes to what I like and don't like. Here's to hoping for more everyday life stories rooted in the present featuring great Black actors.

  • Akimbo | June 13, 2012 7:56 PM

    Slavery is a huge and contentious part of American history that's still relevant today. I may not have been a slave, but my grandmother was a maid, my mom remembers being a small child and being unable to use bathrooms at gas stations on road trips, my middle school history teacher told my class that slaves were "happy" to be on the plantation (that was the late 90s). Just because you, personally, have not experienced something specific does not mean that it lacks some element, whether universal or personal, to which you can relate. All these slave and servant pictures reference days gone by, but parallel things that still happen today. People treat their Latina maids the way blacks were treated back in the day, people are imported into this country to serve as secret slaves/indentured servants TODAY. So it's fine to tire of the slave/servant narrative- frankly, I have little interest for most of them- but there is a place for it, just as there is for movies about our country's various wars, popular figures, and other historical events. You act like those are the only four movies to feature black people in the last ten years and, considering all the other projects posted on this very blog, it's pretty disingenuous. Yeah, you'll have to wade through 50 billion Django posts, but they're there. And this is not me saying that cinema's representation of blacks is as diverse as it should be; I'm just not fixated on four out of a hundred other films.

  • the black police | June 13, 2012 6:43 PM

    @AKIMBO: Oppression and struggle are universal life experiences; slavery and servitude are not. I was not a slave nor a servant. I have faced oppression and struggle. I did not tell anyone to get over anything. I didnt ask anyone to get over slavery, servitude OR RACISM. That's NOT my point. "We" doesnt mean black people here. "We" is America. America is obessed with slavery and servitude in relation to black people. Many of these movies are made by nonblacks and blacks participate by acting, directing, watching, etc.

  • Blues Keep Rocking | June 13, 2012 4:41 PM

    Well, Hollywood sucks and doesn't give a damn about black people, so what do you expect? We can cry 24/7 about our representations and they won't even hear us.

  • Orville | June 13, 2012 4:32 PM

    I think the Black Police has a point and people need to think a bit deeper on this issue.
    I believe it is BORING that Hollywood continues making movies about the past? Haven't we moved beyond slavery, being the Help, and the black butler? It seems to me Hollywood only makes mainstream movies with black actors IF it involves RACE as a critical factor. Can't there be movies made about black people that are dramatic that go beyond race? Is racism the only issue black people experience in our lives? Isn't there more to us than that?

  • Akimbo | June 13, 2012 3:08 PM

    @The Black Police Those Best Picture winners may not be about slavery, but many of them and most nominees are about oppression, struggle, and/or some part of history. We going to tell the Jews to get over the Holocaust and the veterans to get over World War II, Vietnam, etc? I get that there's a need for more diverse black stories, but I will take an attempt at a quality slave movie over utter garbage any day. On top of that, half of the films about which you complain weren't even created by black people, so it's not just "us."

  • the black police | June 13, 2012 12:57 PM

    @Ali: Um what exactly reads as baiting in that comment. Please explain in detail.
    @Troy: These are the last best picture winners (it is not personal standard of a great film but lets accept it as an industry standard):
    2011 - "The Artist"
    2010 - "The King's Speech"
    2009 - "The Hurt Locker"
    2008 - "Slumdog Millionaire"
    2007 - "No Country for Old Men"
    2006 - "The Departed"
    2005 - "Crash"
    2004 - "Million Dollar Baby"
    2003 - "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"
    2002 - "Chicago"
    2001 - "A Beautiful Mind"
    2000 - "Gladiator"
    Now detail for me how each of those are about slavery and/or servitude.

  • troy | June 13, 2012 11:34 AM

    Every church/religious, sports, company, and family movie are about servitude. Society is servitude. Even I Am Legend was about servitude, he was surviving trying to find a cure for himself but the countless, faceless who are the bain of the hero's existence.

  • Ali | June 13, 2012 11:29 AM

    Are you baiting people, The Black Police?

  • Skelly | June 13, 2012 11:23 AM

    Yep, it's always the retro Oscar bait that we have to strive for. There's never a dynamic, contemporary story for us in Hollywood.

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