Inspired by former White House butler Eugene Allen, the fictional Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) invites us to view the White House, and more prominently America’s changing race relations, through the eyes of the help.

We begin in the past where Cecil is tormented by a white family. His mother is habitually raped and his father shot dead in the fields by the same white man, their landowner, but Cecil anyhow finds himself serving at the beck and call of several other white families while working as a career butler for the White House Administration. His work involves anything and everything from refilling his excellency’s tea to standing guard by the open door while another Commander-in-Chief raucously empties his bowels.

Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo) is perturbed by his father’s work—which he implies embodies a conciliatory livelihood. They are on ideological islands, each having a different understanding of what righteous service to one’s country entails.

For that matter, what is the most respectable way to fight for country? To literally go to combat and die in the war? To canvass the streets and advocate for integration, forcing whites in the mean ol’ south to tolerate all races in search of a more perfect union? Or to promote change, even if ‘change’ means menially toiling from within? These perspectives are manifested in Cecil and his two sons Louis and Earl (David Banner).

As Freedom Fighters agitating for social change, Louis and his afro-wearing girlfriend (Yaya Alafia) reside on the opposite end of the spectrum from Cecil’s House Negro. Their horns entangle in the way the long-standing dispute of which way to fight for racial equality and justice—the Black Panthers Way, the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee Way, the Back to Africa Way—has been the struggle for many black Americans. As if to settle the quarrel, the at times heavy-handed dialogue makes sure to mention that Uncle Toms too can be subversive if they are effective in changing whites’ attitudes – evident in Cecil’s success in lobbying for equal wages for black domestic workers.

Despite compelling performances from Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, and the rest, The Butler, character portrait that it is, falls short by way of the plot. From a man who served eight presidents, you’d expect to sneak a glimpse of the goings-on behind the White House curtains. Unwittingly, Cecil’s personality takes a backseat to the far more commonplace narrative of America’s, in particular black America’s, changing social landscape. We’re taken on a tour through these historical checkpoints of ‘60s assassinations and burning buses, with little profundity beneath the exterior.

To boot, the historical drama is heavy on history and light on drama. The only moment of raw emotion occurs when racial tension and literally… spit… fly across a restaurant counter during a sit-in.

The Butler is Daniels’ highest grossing film, making over $110 million in the domestic box office to date, on a $30 million budget. And certainly that can’t be taken lightly.

As we well know, tense scenes arousing audience’s anger, shame, and resentment don’t sell tickets and hence, even topics regarding race relations must come to a speedy closure. Cecil remains the help but with loving approval from his once estranged son. Meanwhile, the revolutionary road through racial progress in America predictably concludes with a stop at Obama’s presidency.

In the eyes of Hollywood fare, Eugene Allen, Barack Obama, and the black constituency they presumably represent have come a long way since their sharecropping days. An Oscar nod to this Monet of black progress would do more to further this message than to strictly speak to the merits of the film.

Director: Lee Daniels
Writer: Danny Strong
Stars: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyewolo


  1. Oprah was phenomenal woman in this film. Phenomenal, loving her husband the whole way, making the money when he’s broke, taking care of the children, cooking that soul food, keeping the home together… oh she was a godsend!

  2. Awesome performances by Ole and Oprah… I thought the plot was cheesy. Other than that Butler is kinda refreshing to watch.


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