Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013)

PG-13 | 130 mins | Drama, Biography | 16 August 2013

THIS TITLE IS OUTSIDE THE AFI CATALOG OF FEATURE FILMS (1893-1993)
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HISTORY

The film's opening sequence includes the following quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that."
       End credits are preceded by the following title card: "This film is dedicated to the brave men and women who fought for our freedom in the civil rights movement." End credits include "Special Thanks" to Bruce Cohen and the statement "In loving memory of Laura Ziskin." End credits also include the following statements: "Footage provided by T3Media; Footage and images provided by Getty Images; Courtesy Universal Studios Licensing, LLC; Sanford & Son, Barney Miller, courtesy of Sony Pictures Television; Courtesy of Soul Train Holdings, LLC; Courtesy of the WGBH Media Library & Archives; Birmingham Civil Rights Institute; Courtesy CNN; MyFootage, LLC; LBJ Library Sound by WHCA; Redd Foxx illustration on cover of TV Guide by Charles Santore; Ebony magazine courtesy of Johnson Publishing Company, LLC; Images courtesy of thesportgallery.com, copyright Sport Gallery, Inc.; NBC Universal Archives; Coca-Cola is a registered trademark of the Coca-Cola Company; Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and boyhood home in Abilene, KS: Part of the National Archives and Records Administration; JFK Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, MA: Part of the National Archives and Records Administration; LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, TX: Part of the National Archives and Records Administration; Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, CA: Part of the National Archives and Records Administration; Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, CA: Part of the National Archives and Records Administration"; and, ""Special Thanks: Charles Allen & the Estate of Eugene Allen; The State of Louisiana; The Louisiana Office of Economic ... More Less

The film's opening sequence includes the following quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that."
       End credits are preceded by the following title card: "This film is dedicated to the brave men and women who fought for our freedom in the civil rights movement." End credits include "Special Thanks" to Bruce Cohen and the statement "In loving memory of Laura Ziskin." End credits also include the following statements: "Footage provided by T3Media; Footage and images provided by Getty Images; Courtesy Universal Studios Licensing, LLC; Sanford & Son, Barney Miller, courtesy of Sony Pictures Television; Courtesy of Soul Train Holdings, LLC; Courtesy of the WGBH Media Library & Archives; Birmingham Civil Rights Institute; Courtesy CNN; MyFootage, LLC; LBJ Library Sound by WHCA; Redd Foxx illustration on cover of TV Guide by Charles Santore; Ebony magazine courtesy of Johnson Publishing Company, LLC; Images courtesy of thesportgallery.com, copyright Sport Gallery, Inc.; NBC Universal Archives; Coca-Cola is a registered trademark of the Coca-Cola Company; Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and boyhood home in Abilene, KS: Part of the National Archives and Records Administration; JFK Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, MA: Part of the National Archives and Records Administration; LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, TX: Part of the National Archives and Records Administration; Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, CA: Part of the National Archives and Records Administration; Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, CA: Part of the National Archives and Records Administration"; and, ""Special Thanks: Charles Allen & the Estate of Eugene Allen; The State of Louisiana; The Louisiana Office of Economic Development; The Jefferson Parish Film Office; Laura Lewis; Schuyler Moore; David Bennett; Susan Batson; Walker Hines; Toby Hill; David B. Smallman; Don Gordon; John Walsh; The White House Historical Association (White House Collection); Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, MO; Dino A. Brugioni Collection, The National Security Archive, Washington, D.C.; Bud Lee - Picturemaker/The Serge Group; Center for Spiritual Living in the Heart of Las Cruces; John F. Kennedy Library Foundation; Jeff Gordon, Gordon Music Company; Mark Rowen, Blue Collar Productions; Lenox Corporation; Rusty Robertson & Sue Schwartz; Steve McKeever; Luke A. Nichter, Nixontapes.org; Steve McKeever; Stanley Nelson; Samsung; John Barrett; Loree Rodkin; Sarah Raimo; Tory Burch; Svedka Vodka; Esther Song; Brooks Brothers; Scott Conant; Arthur Wayne; Katie Goodwin; Andrew Storzini."
       According to a 15 Aug 2013 LAT article, Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal brought Wil Haygood’s 7 Nov 2008 The Washington Post article, “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” to producer Laura Ziskin shortly after it was published. A 20 Nov 2008 DV news item announced that Sony had acquired film rights to Haygood’s profile of the African American butler Eugene Allen for an undisclosed amount. However, Sony dropped the project, according to production notes in AMPAS library files, forcing Laura Ziskin to seek independent financing. Sheila Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), provided $2.75 million of the film’s $30 million budget, as noted in the 15 Aug 2013 LAT article, which also named retired NBA basketball player Michael Finley and entrepreneur Earl Stafford as major investors. Press notes credited thirty-seven producers who either provided money or helped raise financing, including the late Ziskin, who died 12 Jun 2011 and had designated money for the production in her will.
       Director Lee Daniels was first approached by Ziskin, but did not sign on to the film until his project Selma fell through. According to production notes, Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey were the first actors to join the cast. However, when Jane Fonda’s participation was announced in the 28 Mar 2012 HR, the article stated that Whitaker was “close to a deal” to play the lead role.
       Principal photography took place over forty-one days in summer 2012 in New Orleans, LA. Filming was still underway in Sep 2012 when the Weinstein Company acquired U.S. distribution rights, as noted in 25 Sep 2012 DV and HR items. Although Quincy Jones was announced as the composer in a 26 Jul 2012 DV brief, Rodrigo Leão later replaced him.
       As reported by news items in the 3 Jul 2013 DV, 9 Jul 2013 DV and 21 Jul 2013 LAT, Warner Bros. filed a claim with the Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA) to stop the Weinstein Company from using the title The Butler, as the title was already registered through the MPAA to Warner Bros. as a consequence of the 1916 Lubin Mfg. Co. film of that name. Warner Bros.’ claim was based on the fact that Lubin’s story properties had been acquired by the Vitagraph Co. of America in 1917, and Vitagraph had in turn been acquired by Warner Bros. in 1924. Warner Bros. won the ruling, and despite the Weinstein Co.’s appeals and an online petition started by Michigan teenager Katy Butler the decision stood. Although the MPAA ordered Weinstein Co. to pay a $25,000 fine for noncompliance and remove the word “Butler” from all promotional and marketing materials, the company opposed the fine, and planned to continue its fight for use of the title. A 9 Aug 2013 WSJ article stated that the fine was upheld, but a slight alteration to the title was allowed, resulting in the final title, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. The MPAA rating of the film also became a point of contention, but after four suggested deletions were submitted, the rating was changed from R to PG-13. While Daniels had promised producers to aim for a PG-13 rating, he claimed it was “the hardest thing [he] ever did in [his] life.”
       The film debuted in first place at the U.S. box office, taking in $24.6 million in its first weekend, according to a 23 Aug 2013 LAT report. A 19 Aug 2013 LAT article stated that opening-weekend viewers gave the picture an average rating of ‘A,’ according to marketing research firm Cinemascore. The film earned $17 million in its second weekend, as noted in the 26 Aug 2013 LAT, and a 27 Sep 2013 HR brief reported that box-office earnings had passed $100 million. According to a 16 Sep 2013 HR article, Lee Daniels was the third African American director, after John Singleton and Tim Story, to have a film earn over $100 million at the box office.
       Critical reception was mixed. Forest Whitaker’s performance received consistent praise, and the 16 Aug 2013 NYT review called the film “a brilliantly truthful movie”; however, the 16 Aug 2013 HR review described it as “very middle-of-the-road...politically and aesthetically,” and the WSJ review of the same date criticized Danny Strong’s script as contrived and inept.
       A 27 Sep 2013 HR brief announced that the film would play as the opening night feature at the 15th Mumbai Film Festival, set to begin 17 Oct 2013.
       The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) acquired network television rights to Lee Daniels’ The Butler, as announced in the 27 Sep 2013 HR, with plans to air the film in 2017 after its “pay cable” debut. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
20 Nov 2008.
---
Daily Variety
26 Jul 2012.
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Daily Variety
25 Sep 2012.
---
Daily Variety
3 Jul 2013.
---
Daily Variety
9 Jul 2013.
---
Hollywood Reporter
28 Mar 2012.
---
Hollywood Reporter
10 May 2012.
---
Hollywood Reporter
25 Sep 2012.
---
Hollywood Reporter
16 Sep 2013.
---
Hollywood Reporter
27 Sep 2013.
---
Los Angeles Times
21 Jul 2013
Section D, p. 3.
Los Angeles Times
15 Aug 2013
Section D, p. 1.
Los Angeles Times
16 Aug 2013
p. 1.
Los Angeles Times
19 Aug 2013
Section D, p. 1.
Los Angeles Times
23 Aug 2013
Section B, p. 3.
Los Angeles Times
26 Aug 2013
Section D, p. 3.
New York Times
16 Aug 2013
p. 1.
WSJ
9 Aug 2013
Section D, p. 4.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
The Weinstein Company presents
A Lee Daniels film
A Laura Ziskin production
In association with Windy Hill Pictures, Follow Through Productions,
Salamander Pictures, Pam Williams Productions
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Unit prod mgr
1st asst dir
2d asst dir
2d 2d asst dir
2d unit dir
1st asst dir, 2d unit
Key 2d asst dir, 2d unit
Unit prod mgr, Addl photog
1st asst dir, Addl photog
2d asst dir, Addl photog
PRODUCERS
Exec prod
Exec prod
Exec prod
Exec prod
Exec prod
Exec prod
Exec prod
Exec prod
Exec prod
Exec prod
Exec prod
Exec prod
Exec prod
Exec prod
Exec prod
Exec prod
Exec prod
Co-exec prod
Co-exec prod
Co-exec prod
Co-exec prod
Co-exec prod
Co-exec prod
Co-prod
Co-prod
Co-prod
Assoc prod
Assoc prod
Assoc prod
Assoc prod
Assoc prod
Exec prod
Assoc prod
Assoc prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
"A" cam op
"A" cam 1st asst
"A" cam 2d asst
"B" cam/Steadicam op
"B" cam 1st asst
"B" cam 2d asst
Film loader
Video assist op
Video assist op
Video asst
Gaffer
Best boy elec
Generator op
Rigging gaffer
Best boy rigging elec
Rigging elec
Rigging elec
Rigging elec
Rigging elec
Best boy grip
"A" cam dolly grip
"B" cam dolly grip
Company grip
Company grip
Company grip
Addl grip
Key rigging grip
Best boy rigging grip
Rigging grip
Rigging grip
Still photog
Dir of photog/Cam op, 2d unit
Dir of photog, Addl photog
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Art dir
Addl art dir
Graphic des
Addl graphic des
Art dept coord
Art prod asst
FILM EDITORS
1st asst ed
1st asst ed
Asst ed
Asst ed
Editorial prod asst
Editorial prod asst
SET DECORATORS
Prop master
Asst prop master
Prop asst
Prop asst
Prop asst
Set des
Set des
Set des
Paint supv
Scenic artist
Scenic artist
Scenic artist
Set dec
Leadman
Gang boss
Buyer
Warehouse coord
On set dresser
Const coord
Const foreman
Const foreman
Const foreman
Shop foreman
Loc foreman
COSTUMES
Cost des
Cost supv
Key costumer
Key set costumer
Set costumer Mr. Whitaker
Set costumer
Set costumer
Costumer
Costumer
Costumer
Costumer
Costumer
Head cutter
Cutter 1st hand
Illustrator
Cost coord
Ward prod asst
Ward prod asst
Ward prod asst
Ward prod asst
Ward prod asst
MUSIC
Mus supv
Exec mus prod
Score prod
Score prod
Arr and orch
Librarian
Mus ed
Mus ed
Orchestral contractor
Mus coord
Mus clearance
Score rec at
Score rec at
Score rec at
SOUND
Prod sd mixer
2d boom/Utility
Supv sd ed/Des
Dial supv
Dial ed
Dial ed
Supv ADR ed
ADR ed
Sd eff ed
Sd eff ed
Sd eff ed
Asst
Foley artist
Foley eng
Supv foley ed
Foley ed
Foley ed
Foley ed
Foley rec at
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec asst
Re-rec asst
Mix eng
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff coord
Spec eff tech
Spec eff tech
Visual eff by
Visual eff supv, The Molecule
Visual eff exec prod, The Molecule
Visual eff prod, The Molecule
Compositing supv, The Molecule
Lead compositor, The Molecule
Visual eff ed, The Molecule
Visual eff coord, The Molecule
Visual eff by
Visual eff supv, Pixel Magic
Prod supv, Pixel Magic
Compositor, Pixel Magic
Compositor, Pixel Magic
Title des, Big Film Design/Cinetitle
MAKEUP
Makeup dept head/Makeup for Mr. Whitaker
Makeup dept co-head
Key makeup artist
Makeup artist for Ms. Winfrey
Prosthetic makeup des & applied
Prostehetics makeup des
Key prosthetic makeup artist
Prosthetic makeup artist
Prosthetic makeup artist
Prosthetic makeup artist
Prosthetic makeup artist
Prosthetic makeup artist
Co-dept head hair stylist
Co-dept head hair stylist
Key hair stylist
Hair stylist for Ms. Winfrey
Hair stylist for Mr. Whitaker
Hair stylist
Hair stylist
Hair stylist
Hair stylist
Barber
Wig maker
Wig maker
PRODUCTION MISC
Casting
Scr supv
Prod supv
Addl prod supv
Prod coord
Asst prod office coord
Prod secy
Relocation liaison
Office prod asst
Office prod asst
Office prod asst
Cast asst
Cast asst
Cast asst
Key set prod asst
Set prod asst
Set prod asst
Set prod asst
Set prod asst
Set prod asst
Set prod asst
Set prod asst
Asst to Mr. Whitaker
Asst to Mr. Daniels
Asst to Mr. Daniels
Asst to Ms. Williams
Asst to Mr. Merims
Intern to exec prod
Asst for Pam Williams Productions
Asst for Pam Williams Productions
Dialect coach
Dialect coach to Mr. Whitaker
Dramaturge to Mr. Whitaker
Movement coach to Mr. Whitaker
Butler coach to Mr. Whitaker
Behind-the-scenes cine
Behind-the-scenes cine
Prod accountant
1st asst accountant
1st asst accountant
2d asst accountant
Payroll accountant
Payroll accountant
Accounting clerk
Accounting clerk
Co-loc mgr
Asst loc mgr
Loc coord
Loc scout
Loc scout
Set loc
Set loc
Set loc
Loc prod asst
New Orleans casting
Extras casting
Los Angeles casting assoc
New York casting assoc
New Orleans casting asst
Extras casting coord
Extras casting asst
Clearance coord
Unit pub
Set medic
Animal wrangler
Transportation coord
Transportation capt
Transportation capt
Rights & clearances
Prod resources
Prod resources, Movie Mogul, Inc.
White House consultant
Craft service
Key craft service
Post prod supv
Post prod coord
Key post prod accountant
Trevanna Post, Inc.
Post prod accountant
Trevanna Post, Inc.
Archival supv
Addl archival consultant
Prod legal services
Completion guaranty provided by
International sales by
Tax incentive financing provided by
NY tax credit financing by
NY tax credit financing by
Collection account management by
STAND INS
Stunt coord
Asst stunt coord
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
COLOR PERSONNEL
Digital intermediate and optics by
New York
Digital intermediate col, Technicolor Postworks
Digital intermediate prod, Technicolor Postworks
Digital intermediate ed, Technicolor Postworks
Digital intermediate eng, Technicolor Postworks
Digital intermediate eng, Technicolor Postworks
Digital intermediate scanning, Technicolor Postwor
Digital intermediate scanning, Technicolor Postwor
Digital intermediate scanning, Technicolor Postwor
Digital intermediate scanning, Technicolor Postwor
Digital intermediate asst, Technicolor Postworks
Digital intermediate asst, Technicolor Postworks
Digital intermediate asst, Technicolor Postworks
Data mgr, Technicolor Postworks
Data mgr, Technicolor Postworks
Digital restoration, Technicolor Postworks
Digital restoration, Technicolor Postworks
Digital restoration, Technicolor Postworks
Facility coord, Technicolor Postworks
VP of client relations, Technicolor Postworks
Post facility supv, Technicolor Postworks
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the article A Butler Well Served by This Election by Wil Haygood (The Washington Post, 7 Nov 2008).
AUTHOR
MUSIC
"Piano Concerto In A Minor Op. 54-1," written by Robert Schumann, performed by The Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Kenneth Klein
Gerald Robbins, piano, courtesy of MSR Classics, by arrangement with Fine Gold Music
"Piano Sonata No. 16 In C Major," written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, arranged by Stefano Seghedoni, courtesy of Chicago Music Library, LLC
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MUSIC
"Piano Concerto In A Minor Op. 54-1," written by Robert Schumann, performed by The Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Kenneth Klein
Gerald Robbins, piano, courtesy of MSR Classics, by arrangement with Fine Gold Music
"Piano Sonata No. 16 In C Major," written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, arranged by Stefano Seghedoni, courtesy of Chicago Music Library, LLC
"Variations For Piano On 'Ah, Vous Dirai-Je, Maman', K. 265," written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, performed by Walter Klien, piano, courtesy of Countdown Media
"Piano Trio No. 1 In D Minor, Op. 49," written by Felix Mendelssohn, arranged by Stefano Seghedoni, courtesy of Chicago Music Library, LLC
"Rondo No. 2 In C Major for Violin and Orchestra, K.373 Allegretto Grazioso," written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, performed by Royal Festival Orchestra, conducted by William Bowles, courtesy of Hindsight Records, by arrangement with The Orchard
"J.S. Bach: 1. Praeludium [Partita No. 1 in B Flat, BWV 825]," performed by Maria João Pires, courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Hamburg, under license from Universal Music Enterprises.
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SONGS
"I'm Determined," written by James Cleveland, performed by The Meditation Singers, courtesy of Concord Music Group, Inc., "Hurts Me To My Heart," written by Rose Marie McCoy and Charles Singleton, performed by Faye Adams, courtesy of Cleopatra Records, by arrangement with The Orchard
"Ain't That A Kick In The Head," written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, performed by Dean Martin, courtesy of Capitol Records, Inc., under license from Universal Music Enterprises
"Function At The Junction," written by Eddie Holland and Frederick Long, performed by Shorty Long, courtesy of Motown Records, under license from Universal Music Enterprises
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SONGS
"I'm Determined," written by James Cleveland, performed by The Meditation Singers, courtesy of Concord Music Group, Inc., "Hurts Me To My Heart," written by Rose Marie McCoy and Charles Singleton, performed by Faye Adams, courtesy of Cleopatra Records, by arrangement with The Orchard
"Ain't That A Kick In The Head," written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, performed by Dean Martin, courtesy of Capitol Records, Inc., under license from Universal Music Enterprises
"Function At The Junction," written by Eddie Holland and Frederick Long, performed by Shorty Long, courtesy of Motown Records, under license from Universal Music Enterprises
"Babalu," written by Margarita Lecuona
"Tell Him," written by Carlton Black, performed by Patty Drew, courtesy of Capitol Records, LLC, under license from Universal Music Enterprises
"Bull Connor," music by Tom Phillips, courtesy of WGBH Boston
"We Shall Overcome," musical and lyrical adaptation by Zilphia Horton, Frank Hamilton, Guy Carawan and Pete Seeger, inspired by African American gospel singing, members of the Food & Tobacco Workers Union, Charleston, SC, and the southern Civil Rights Movement, TRO - (c) Copyright 1960 (Renewed) and 1963 (Renewed) Ludlow Music, Inc., New York, International copyright secured made in U.S.A., all rights reserved including public performance for profit, Royalties derived from this composition are being contributed to the We Shall Overcome Fund and The Freedom Movement under the Trusteeship of the writers, used by permission
"I'll Close My Eyes," written by Billy Reid and Buddy Kaye, performed by Dinah Washington, courtesy of Verve Records, under license from Universal Music Enterprises
"Out Of Sight," written and performed by James Brown, courtesy of Universal Records, under license from Universal Music Enterprises
"In The Middle Of The Night," written by Keith McMasters, Fantasia Barrino, Kassim VonRico Washington, and Abel Terry, performed by Fantasia Barrino, produced by Keith "Mack" McMasters for Lil' Mack Productions, LLC, Fantasia performs Courtesy of 19 Recordings / RCA Records
"Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed On Freedom," traditional, arranged by Clark J. Knighten
"Party Is A Groovy Thing," written by Frankie Brunson, performed by People's Choice, courtesy of Philadelphia International Records and Sony Music Entertainment, by arrangement with Sony Music Licensing
"You And I Ain't Nothin' No More," written, produced, and arranged by Lenny Kravitz, performed by Gladys Knight, courtesy of Miss Bessie Music, Gladys Knight appears Courtesy of ShakeJi, Inc.
"Hail To The Chief," performed by the DePaul University Brass Band, arranged by Will Schaefer, courtesy of APM Music
"Family Reunion," written by Kenneth Gamble and Leonard Huff, performed by The O'Jays, courtesy of Philadelphia International Records and Sony Music Entertainment, by arrangement with Sony Music Licensing.
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DETAILS
Release Date:
16 August 2013
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles and New York openings: 16 August 2013
Production Date:
summer/fall 2012
Physical Properties:
Sound
Dolby® Digital in Selected Theatres
Color
Lenses
Filmed with Panavision® cameras & lenses
Duration(in mins):
130
MPAA Rating:
PG-13
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
48517
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In 1926 Macon, Georgia, an African American boy named Cecil Gaines overhears Thomas Westfall rape his mother, Hattie Pearl, on a cotton plantation owned by Westfall’s family. Cecil begs his father, Earl, to confront Westfall, but when Earl does so, Westfall shoots him dead. Westfall’s grandmother, Annabeth, trains Cecil to work inside the house, instructing him to be “invisible” as he serves the family meals. As a teenager, Cecil fears that Westfall will kill him too, and decides to leave the plantation. Although he tells his mother goodbye, she has been permanently traumatized by Earl’s death and cannot speak. Struggling to find a job, Cecil travels on foot to North Carolina, where, one night, he punches through the window of an inn and steals a cake. Maynard, an African American butler, discovers Cecil and takes him on as his protégé at the inn. There, Cecil learns how to shine shoes, mix drinks, and anticipate white customers’ needs. When Maynard is offered a butler job at the Excelsior Hotel in Washington, D.C., he says he is too old and suggests Cecil, who takes the job, remembering Maynard’s advice that he must remain non-threatening. In 1957 Washington, D.C., R.D. Warner observes Cecil calmly serve a racist guest at the Excelsior. When prompted for his thoughts on integration, Cecil claims he has no political opinions. Back at home with his wife Gloria, a former maid, and two sons, Charlie and Louis, Cecil gets called for a job interview at the White House. There, he learns that R.D. Warner, head of White House operations, recommended him to the African American maître d', Freddie Fallows, after taking notice of him at the hotel. In ... +


In 1926 Macon, Georgia, an African American boy named Cecil Gaines overhears Thomas Westfall rape his mother, Hattie Pearl, on a cotton plantation owned by Westfall’s family. Cecil begs his father, Earl, to confront Westfall, but when Earl does so, Westfall shoots him dead. Westfall’s grandmother, Annabeth, trains Cecil to work inside the house, instructing him to be “invisible” as he serves the family meals. As a teenager, Cecil fears that Westfall will kill him too, and decides to leave the plantation. Although he tells his mother goodbye, she has been permanently traumatized by Earl’s death and cannot speak. Struggling to find a job, Cecil travels on foot to North Carolina, where, one night, he punches through the window of an inn and steals a cake. Maynard, an African American butler, discovers Cecil and takes him on as his protégé at the inn. There, Cecil learns how to shine shoes, mix drinks, and anticipate white customers’ needs. When Maynard is offered a butler job at the Excelsior Hotel in Washington, D.C., he says he is too old and suggests Cecil, who takes the job, remembering Maynard’s advice that he must remain non-threatening. In 1957 Washington, D.C., R.D. Warner observes Cecil calmly serve a racist guest at the Excelsior. When prompted for his thoughts on integration, Cecil claims he has no political opinions. Back at home with his wife Gloria, a former maid, and two sons, Charlie and Louis, Cecil gets called for a job interview at the White House. There, he learns that R.D. Warner, head of White House operations, recommended him to the African American maître d', Freddie Fallows, after taking notice of him at the hotel. In Fallows’s office, Cecil makes an informed comment about a cognac decanter on his desk, and the maître d’ hires him while concurrently insulting his subservient demeanor. Cecil and Gloria celebrate the new job at a dinner party with their neighbors, Howard and Gina. Howard asks Cecil’s older son, Louis, if he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, but Louis demurs. At the White House, Cecil works under head butler Carter Wilson, and Carter's second-in-command, James Holloway, and the three become fast friends. On Cecil's first trip to the Oval Office, Cecil nervously serves coffee to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Sometime later, he returns home tired from work and argues with Louis, who wants to attend a civil rights protest. Cecil forbids his son, but later celebrates when Eisenhower sends national troops to help the “Little Rock Nine,” a group of African American students who met with resistance when they tried to attend the newly desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. After graduating high school, Louis attends Fisk College in Nashville, Tennessee, despite Cecil’s wishes that he go to Howard University, closer to home. Campaigning for president, Vice President Richard M. Nixon visits Carter, James, and Cecil in the White House kitchen and asks about their concerns as African Americans. James reveals that the African American White House staff members are paid forty percent less than their white counterparts, and Nixon promises to rectify the disparity. In 1960, Louis befriends fellow law student Carol Hammie at a meeting held by the Freedom Riders, a civil rights activist group. With the Freedom Riders, Louis takes part in a sit-in at Woolworth’s segregated lunch counter, where white patrons harass and beat the demonstrators. Cecil sees Louis being arrested on television and comes to Louis's court hearing, admonishing his son for breaking the law. Back in Washington, D.C., Gloria reveals to Howard and Gina that Louis is serving a jail term, and they needle her about visiting the White House. Even though Gloria has wanted to go for years, Cecil has never brought her. In 1961, with President John F. Kennedy in office, Cecil spends most of his time at work and rejects Gloria’s drunken advances at home. Meanwhile, Louis joins the Freedom Riders on a bus trip to Birmingham, Alabama, and they are attacked by the Ku Klux Klan. He calls home, and despite his parents’ pleas, Louis insists he will take another bus ride. Desperately lonely, Gloria continues to abuse alcohol and has an affair with Howard. Aware that Louis is an activist, Kennedy tells Cecil that the Freedom Riders have changed his heart, and later announces plans to enact a comprehensive civil rights bill. Soon afterward, Kennedy is assassinated, and Cecil tries to comfort First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who refuses to change her bloodied clothes. Later that day, Cecil reconciles with Gloria and agrees to cut back his work hours. Lyndon B. Johnson takes over the presidency and takes a liking to Cecil while constantly throwing about racist epithets. One day, Johnson asks about Cecil’s sons, and Cecil admits he does not know how Louis is. Although President Johnson makes a televised speech about overcoming bigotry, the Vietnam War earns him a bad reputation. In 1968, Louis and Carol wait in a hotel room with civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a group of other demonstrators. Louis reveals that his father is a butler, and King praises African American domestic workers for showing their work ethic and dignity to white people, claiming that they are inadvertently subversive. One day, Cecil suggests to R.D. Warner that White House staff should be paid and promoted equally, regardless of race, but Warner rejects the request. Dr. King is assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, and news of his murder incites riots. After years of being away, Louis returns home with Carol, who is dressed provocatively and acts rudely at the dinner table. The two discuss their affiliation with the Black Panthers, a militant organization, and when Gloria changes the conversation, Louis belittles her opinions. Cecil loses his temper and throws Louis and Carol out. Gloria tries to intervene, but when Louis insults his father by referring to him as “the butler,” Gloria slaps her son and sends him away. The next day, Louis is arrested for assaulting a police officer. After Carter bails Louis out of jail, Charlie disappoints his brother by announcing that he will fight in the Vietnam War. In 1969, Cecil overhears President Richard M. Nixon suggest starting his own version of “Black Power” by promoting African American businesses and entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, at a Black Panthers meeting, Louis tells Carol he is not ready to kill for their cause, and leaves when she cannot say she loves him. On Cecil’s birthday, Louis calls Gloria for money and Cecil tells him off. Upon hanging up, two soldiers arrive to inform Cecil and Gloria that Charlie has died at war, and the couple reacts in shock. When facing the news of his Watergate scandal, a drunken Nixon asks Cecil to sit with him and says he will never resign, but Cecil offers no words of encouragement. Louis finishes his master’s degree in political science and runs for office, but Cecil has disowned him because he did not attend Charlie’s funeral. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan asks Cecil to secretly mail checks to people who wrote him about their financial problems. Afterward, Cecil confronts Warner about pay inequality once again, threatening to leave if he is not paid fairly. When Warner says Cecil should move on, Cecil reveals that he told Reagan of his grievance, and Reagan wishes to discuss the problem with Warner directly. After the pay is made equal, First Lady Nancy Reagan commends Cecil for his advocacy and invites him and Gloria to a state dinner at the White House. Although Gloria enjoys herself, Cecil feels that they are only there “for show.” Later, while serving Reagan and two Republican senators, he overhears the president insist that he will veto sanctions against South Africa. The female senator urges Reagan to reconsider, discussing the atrocities of Apartheid; however, Reagan remains steadfast. Cecil finally decides Louis is a hero, not a criminal, and takes Gloria on a road trip to show her the Westfall plantation. Gloria thanks him for taking such good care of her over the years. Later, Cecil informs Reagan that he must quit, and Reagan laments his departure. When Louis leads a demonstration to free South African civil rights leader Nelson Mandela, Cecil surprises him by taking part. The two are arrested, and Cecil happily goes to jail with his son. In 2008, Cecil and Gloria support African American candidate Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and Louis gets elected to Congress. Just before Obama wins the election, Gloria dies. Sometime later, Cecil dons a tie clip that President Johnson gave him, then goes to the White House to visit Obama. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award
The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.