Story

The Butler is based on a true story. Cecil Gaines (Forest Whittaker) has a hard start to life, working in a cotton field in Georgia during the 1920s. He sees his mother abused and raped by the son of the plantation owner and his father shot dead by the same man.

As soon as Cecil is old enough, he leaves the plantation to find work in the real world. This is much harder than he expects. When he has to rob a store to get some food, he appeals to the cook to take him in. The cook agrees and trains him to be a house servant.

Cecil is so good at his job that a White House employee offers him a job as butler during Eisenhower’s term as president. Cecil goes on to serve eight different presidents through many momentous events, including the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. One of Cecil’s sons, Louis (David Oyelowo), joins the civil rights movement and later the Black Panthers. This causes much division between father and son. Eventually Louis is estranged from his father. The historical events shown in the movie have a big impact on Cecil’s life and the life of his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and also on American society.

Themes

Racial prejudice and civil rights; protest riots

Violence

There is quite a lot of violence in The Butler. For example:

  • The opening scene shows Cecil remembering his early life when lynchings were common. The scene shows two black people hanging from ropes.
  • Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer), the son of the plantation owner, grabs Cecil’s mother from the cotton fields and takes her into a shed. Screams are heard coming from the shed.
  • When Thomas comes out of the shed, Cecil challenges his own father, Earl (David Banner), to do something. Earl calls out to Thomas, who shoots him dead on the spot.
  • Cecil breaks a shop window to get some food and cuts his hand badly.
  • The civil rights action group to which Louis and his girlfriend Carol (Yaya Alafia) belong do role-plays where some of them are seated and others pretend to be thugs hitting and taunting them. They practise not reacting.
  • Members of the civil rights group go into a café and sit in the ‘non-coloured’ area. Some thugs treat them very badly. They shake them, push them and pull them off their chairs. They squirt sauce and mayonnaise on them, spit on them and kick them. One pours hot coffee over Louis. This scene is quite confronting.
  • Louis’ group is on a bus. The Ku Klux Klan attacks the bus, wearing white robes and hoods and carrying burning torches. There is a huge burning cross nearby and the crowd that has joined the Klan starts rocking the bus. One of the KKK members smashes the windows with a baseball bat and throws his burning torch inside, setting the bus on fire. The scene also uses actual newsreel footage of a similar event.
  • There are several scenes of clashes between protestors and police. The police use water cannon and hit protestors, and dogs attack the protestors as well. The scene uses newsreel footage. Louis and Carol are bailed up by an aggressive German Shepherd dog.
  • Louis gets beaten up in prison.
  • The movie shows some footage from the Vietnam War protests and riots.

Content that may disturb children

Under 5

Children in this age group are likely to be disturbed by the violent scenes described above.

From 5-8

Children in this age group are likely to be disturbed by the violent scenes described above.

From 8-13

Several of the violent scenes mentioned above are likely to disturb children in this age group. They might also be disturbed by the following scenes:

  • The shooting of John F. Kennedy is mentioned although not shown. Jackie Kennedy is shown covered in blood.
  • Gloria tells Cecil about when she heard that her younger son Charles had died in the Vietnam War. She says she drank to the point of passing out and went ‘to the bathroom’ over herself. Louis found her in that state and cleaned her up.

Over 13

Children in this age group might also be disturbed by some of the scenes mentioned above.

Sexual references

The Butler includes some sexual references. For example:

  • Some bakers make dough in the shape of a breast with a nipple.
  • Cecil and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) are shown in bed together.
  • A neighbour tries to seduce Gloria. 

Alcohol, drugs and other substances

The Butler shows some use of substances. For example:

  • Characters drink a lot in various situations.
  • Several characters smoke.
  • Gloria Gaines has problems with alcohol and pills throughout her life. 

Nudity and sexual activity

There is some nudity in The Butler, including a briefly shown poster of a naked woman. 

Product placement

The following products are displayed or used in The Butler: McDonalds, Coca Cola and Exxon. 

Coarse language

There is some coarse language in The Butler

Ideas to discuss with your children

The Butler is a drama based on a true story that is both heart-wrenching and triumphant. It is a long movie, beginning with slavery, covering the civil rights movement and including Barack Obama’s election. The movie emphasises the historical significance of all these events happening in the course of one man’s life.

Because of its themes and several violent and disturbing scenes, The Butler is more suited to older teenagers and adults.

The main messages from this movie are that people shouldn’t be discriminated against because of the colour of their skin and that it’s important to stand up for what you believe in.

Values in this movie that you could reinforce with your children include respect for all people and non-violent protest.