Forest Whitaker in "Lee Daniels' The Butler."
Forest Whitaker in "Lee Daniels' The Butler."

There's a reason The Weinstein Co. is opening "Lee Daniels' The Butler" ahead of film festival season, even if it does have Oscars in mind. They recognize that this crowd pleaser will play better, like the similarly accessible "The Help," for a wide audience than critics. It's a four-hankie tearjerker of the first order. I wept repeatedly.

As "Precious" showed, director Lee Daniels knows how to push for emotion, especially when it comes to digging into our complicated feelings about race. This movie functions like a "Forrest Gump" or "Zelig" in that it follows one character through decades of American history. Daniels is armed with a strongly structured screenplay developed by the late Laura Ziskin ("Pretty Woman," "Spider-Man") as her last passion project. 

Daniels is also blessed with two massive actors as his leads: Forest Whitaker (Oscar-winner for "The Last King of Scotland") as the butler who starts his life as a slave on a cotton plantation, and Oprah Winfrey (Oscar-nominated for "The Color Purple") as his long-suffering wife, who carries all the feelings that he doesn't allow himself to have. They will both certainly earn Oscar nominations. The movie is about the sacrifices made over many years by American blacks who strive to survive, fit in and even thrive, as well as the anger and struggle of the Civil Rights movement.

In 2008, as Barack Obama was on the cusp of being elected, Sony chairman Amy Pascal sent Sony producer Ziskin Wil Haygood's Washington Post article about Eugene Allen, who was a butler in the White House through eight presidents, and his wife Helen. Ziskin immediately saw the potential for a personal and epic historic story and tracked down Haygood and Allen. Sony optioned the story and developed the screenplay by Danny Strong. But with a bigger budget ($35 million) than Sony was interested in green-lighting, Ziskin took back the project in turnaround. 

She was disturbed that there was such a lack of diversity in films being made because there are so few roles for the industry's top African American talent to play. She struggled to raise independent financing for the film, which was backed, finally, by many well-to-do African American business people. Sheila Johnson, cofounder of BET, led the way among many other investors. Michael Finley came in as executive producer, joined by Buddy Patrick, Cassian Elwes, Hilary Shor and Adam Merims; David Jacobson is co-producer. The film was bankrolled by Follow Through Productions, Windy Hill Pictures, Salamander Media, Salloway Rubenstein Productions/Crystal City Entertainment, Earl W. Stafford, Starstream Films, Yogi Entertainment, and Inner Media Capital.

Daniels, who was hot after "Precious," was attached to "Selma"; Ziskin had worked on an earlier Martin Luther King film with Stephen Frears. When "Selma" never got off the ground, Ziskin went to Daniels. With him on board, Whitaker and Winfrey signed on as the butler and his wife, along with David Oyewolo ("The Paperboy") as their activist son Louis, Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Vanessa Redgrave. 

Sadly, neither Allen nor Ziskin were able to see the project finished. The movie was filmed without them. 

While the real Allen worked with eight presidents, this one skips a few, and the star cameos are the film's weakest links, detracting from its authenticity--the presidents are played by Robin Williams (Eisenhower), James Marsden (JFK), Liev Schreiber (LBJ), John Cusack (Nixon) and Alan Rickman (Reagan), with Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan and Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy. 

Admittedly, this is an ambitious project in scope--recreating history in period detail-- to achieve on an independent budget on location in New Orleans, where Daniels filmed in the same Woolworth's counter bar that a famous sit-in actually took place. Nonetheless Daniels and his actors carry the day. 

Review roundup below.


The director of “Precious” and “The Paperboy” plays things relatively straight in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” a sprawling, highly fictional biopic of longtime White House butler Eugene Allen that also positions itself as a panoramic snapshot of the African-American experience across nine decades. But if Daniels has tamped down the kinky sexuality and outre stylistic flourishes for his first PG-13 outing, his handprints can still be found in the film’s volatile mix of acting styles, gratuitous sentimentality cut with moments of real emotional power, and a tone that seesaws between serious social melodrama and outsized chitlin’-circuit theatrical. At its root [is] the kind of starry, old-fashioned prestige pic the studios used to make...


While veering on overstatement, the educational perspective is balanced off by glances at Gaines' home life, particularly his tender relationship with his wife. Even as a minor subplot involving her affair with a shady neighbor (Terrence Howard) goes nowhere, Winfrey never overplays her role, and Daniels only toys with melodramatic possibilities rather than allowing them to take over.

That changes at the very end, when Daniels turns up the histrionics for the 2008 election. Yet the finale remains more or less faithful to the original article that spawned the movie, and "The Butler" can't be faulted for indulging in the same triumphant spirit experienced by the source of Gaines' character.

The Wrap:

Eighty years of the black experience in America is a lot to cram into 132 minutes, but Lee Daniels provides a fascinating survey of 20th-century domestic racism in "The Butler." While it’s ostensibly the story of the title character, who views the passage of history in his service to seven presidents, the movie feels most alive when it exits the White House.


Although it's his first film to carry a possessory title (though not by choice), "The Butler" initially appears entirely out of step with Daniels' oeuvre. A sweeping, inspirational, PG-13 rated historical saga from the man who gave us Mo'Nique's unflinching sexual abuse monologue in "Precious," Stephen Dorff wearing nothing but a condom in "Shadowboxer" and Nicole Kidman peeing on Zac Efron in "The Paperboy"?

It's not quite as jarring a transition as John Waters going PG for "Hairspray," but it's close. And yet there's something oddly appropriate about the film's last minute title change. Just as no one would have made "Hairspray" like Waters, no one could've made "The Butler" like Lee Daniels. 

Entertainment Weekly:

Lee Daniels' The Butler is an ambitious, sweeping period drama that manages to be incredibly affecting and feel as if the words ''For Your Consideration'' are stamped across every frame.

The Hollywood Reporter:

Inspiring if not inspired, Lee Daniels' The Butler is a sort of Readers' Digest overview of the 20th century American civil rights movement centered on an ordinary individual with an extraordinary perspective. This fictionalized account of a Southern black man who worked as a White House butler under seven presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan is a very middle-of-the-road movie politically and aesthetically with myriad issues to carp about. But the long arc of this man's story, which begins in a Georgia cotton field and ends with an invitation back to his longtime work place to meet the first black president of the United States, describes a personal, racial and national journey in a way that is quite moving and will have a powerful effect on all manner of audiences