Lee Daniels' The Butler

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
Lee Daniels' The Butler Movie Poster Image
Parents recommend
Well-acted civil rights tale is moving but too formulaic.
  • PG-13
  • 2013
  • 113 minutes

Parents say

age 15+
Based on 6 reviews

Kids say

age 14+
Based on 9 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Cecil and Louis both show how necessary it is to stand up to injustice, even if it's risky or dangerous. The movie chronicles how each president dealt with issues of race and equal rights and stresses that there's dignity in a job well done.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Cecil and his son, Louis, exemplify two archetypal figures in African-American history: the hardworking black domestic (as Martin Luther King Jr. calls Cecil in the movie) and the civil rights activist who defies inequality with non-violent protest. MLK gives a heartfelt tribute to the importance of African-American service workers. President Kennedy tells Cecil that he never knew how hard African Americans had it until he saw televised scenes of Southern terrorism.


Many race-based hate crimes, including scenes that show two lynched black men hanging from a tree; a black sharecropper who's shot point blank for saying one word to his white boss; several scenes of white Southerners (including civilians, police officers, and the Ku Klux Klan) beating up, setting fire to, and otherwise terrorizing black civil rights activists; and the notorious D.C. riots of 1968. A cotton worker is raped (off camera). Jackie Kennedy is shown with blood covering her suit after her husband's assassination. Civil rights workers are shot at, burned out of their freedom ride bus, arrested, and ridiculed.


Married couples kiss and embrace on several occasions -- sometimes in bed. It's suggested that Gloria is having an affair with Howard, who kisses her. Louis is in love with Carol, but they're never shown doing more than kissing briefly. President Carter tells an off-color joke.


Occasional strong language includes "s--t," "a--hole," "bitch," "ass," "damn," "hell," "son of a bitch," "goddamn," "oh my God," and many uses of racial epithets like the "N" word, "coon," and more. One use of "f--k."


Not too many brands are shown, except for Budweiser beer and a Lincoln Continental.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults drink a lot (particularly Gloria, who's an alcoholic) and smoke cigarettes (accurate for many of the time periods the movie passes through).

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Lee Daniels' The Butler is a sweeping look at the history of African-American life in the United States, as witnessed by a black butler (Forest Whitaker) who spent three decades working in the White House. Since the movie chronicles the history of the civil rights movement, there are many scenes that portray hate crimes -- like two lynched men hanging from a tree and a black sharecropper being shot for saying one word to his white boss. White Southerners are also shown raping, killing, shooting, burning, intimidating, and otherwise terrorizing black protesters. Adults smoke cigarettes and drink; one character is an alcoholic who has a drink in most of her scenes. There's also some language (one "f--k," plus "s--t" and many racial epithets) and kissing, as well as the suggestion of an affair. Audiences will get an overview of how various presidents felt about race relations, as well as the methods and ideologies of the civil rights movement.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written bylmgolonka April 4, 2019

Great Closure to a Civil Rights Unit

Over the course of the unit, I have the students research and the Civil Rights topics mentioned in this movie. The lunch counter sit-ins, the freedom rides, th... Continue reading
Parent of a 11 and 13-year-old Written byCanadian Dad August 16, 2020
Teen, 13 years old Written byapocalipseofficial February 11, 2017
Kid, 9 years old July 20, 2016

Good movie to watch if your kid is learning about discrimination

First of all, there`s an F-bomb, uses of Bitch, S--t, Damn, Hell, maybe ass and definitely the "N" word. Cecil`s dad also gets shot in the head by a w... Continue reading

What's the story?

In LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) tells the story of his remarkable life. Born the son of cotton pickers in early 20th-century Georgia, Cecil witnesses his father's execution at the hand of his remorseless young boss and is then brought into the plantation house and taught how to be a domestic servant. He escapes Georgia for North Carolina, where a hotel butler teaches him everything he needs to know to about working for wealthy white patrons. Cecil is offered a job at a prestigious Washington, D.C., hotel and one day is unexpectedly given the opportunity to join the White House's domestic staff as a butler. As Cecil serves three decades' worth of presidents (from Eisenhower to Reagan), his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), struggles with alcoholism, and his oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), joins the civil rights movement.

Is it any good?

There's no question that Lee Daniels' The Butler boasts an extraordinary cast, led by the marvelous Whitaker. The scenes with Whitaker and his fellow White House butlers -- played by Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. (in the best role he's had in a long, long while) -- are funny, heartbreaking, and well acted. Oyelowo proves once again that he's a star on the rise as Cecil's activist son, and Oprah looks like she's having the time of her life drinking, smoking, and dancing her way through the decades (although she never really looks older until her final scenes).

But as well-intentioned as director Lee Daniels is in showing the scope of the African-American experience via one prestigiously employed butler, the movie doesn't live up to either the content or the cast. The film, particularly in the scenes with the various presidents -- all played with enthusiasm by Robin Williams (Eisenhower), James Marsden (Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (Johnson), John Cusack (Nixon), and Alan Rickman (Reagan) -- feels like a remix of Forrest Gump: contrived scenes of a man witnessing history in the making. Even though the film was inspired by a true story, there are parts that are so overly sentimental (like a young Caroline Kennedy improbably discussing the burning of a Freedom Riders bus) and formulaic that it takes away from an otherwise powerful story of African Americans' struggle for equality.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about American history and how it's witnessed by Cecil and his family. Even though Lee Daniels' The Butler is dedicated to those who worked in the civil rights movement, the protagonist is an apolitical butler. Why is his eyewitness account to history so compelling?

  • What would you say the movie's main message is about the civil rights movement? Which character are viewers meant to identify with the most?

  • What did you learn about the civil rights movement, the history of segregation, or the way that various presidents dealt with race relations? Do you think the movie is entirely accurate? Why might filmmakers take liberty with the facts?

Movie details

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