You will be redirected back to your article in seconds
Back to IndieWire

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

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

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.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , ,



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

Mike Daniel

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


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


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


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.


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.


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


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?


Lee Daniels? Meh….


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.


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.


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!


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


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

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.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *