AFI Movie Club: LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER – American Film Institute
Lee Daniels' The Butler Film Still - Forest Whitaker



LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER stars Oscar® winner Forest Whitaker and is based on the life of Eugene Allen, a butler who worked in the White House under eight presidential administrations, bearing witness to some of the most influential political figures and tumultuous times in U.S. history. The film co-stars AFI Life Achievement recipient Jane Fonda as first lady Nancy Reagan.

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Watch writer Danny Strong discuss his path to screenwriting in this AFI exclusive video:

Movie Trivia about LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER

DID YOU KNOW? Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal brought Wil Haygood’s article for The Washington Post article – “A Butler Well Served by This Election” – to producer Laura Ziskin shortly after publication. Sony originally acquired film rights to Haygood’s profile of Eugene Allen; however, they eventually dropped the project, which led Ziskin to seek independent financing.

DID YOU KNOW? BET co-founder Sheila Johnson provided $2.75 million of LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER’s $30 million budget. Former NBA basketball player Michael Finley and entrepreneur Earl Stafford were also major investors. In fact, 37 producers either provided money or helped raise financing, including the late Laura Ziskin, who passed away and designated money for the production in her will.

DID YOU KNOW? Cuba Gooding, Jr. originally tested for the part of Cecil Gaines before Forest Whitaker was cast in the role.

DID YOU KNOW? To prep for the role of John F. Kennedy, James Marsden listened to recordings of the president’s iconic speeches on his iPod, even listening to them as he went to sleep to master the distinct accent.

DID YOU KNOW? Principal photography took place over 41 days in the summer of 2012 in New Orleans.

DID YOU KNOW? With the commercial success of LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER, Lee Daniels was the third Black director, after John Singleton and Tim Story, to have a film earn more than $100 million at the box office.

DID YOU KNOW? Following an extensive battle with the MPAA over the title THE BUTLER, which was also the name of a 1916 short directed by Edwin McKim, director Lee Daniels reluctantly agreed to differentiate his film by using the title LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER.

DID YOU KNOW? LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER saw Forest Whitaker and Robin Williams reunite as co-stars after 26 years; they’d previously starred in Barry Levinson’s GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM.

DID YOU KNOW? Oprah Winfrey, who played Gloria Gaines in LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER, hadn’t starred in a movie since BELOVED in 1998. Winfrey and director Lee Daniels had previously worked together on the 2009 film, PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL ‘PUSH’ BY SAPPHIRE – which Winfrey executive produced.

DID YOU KNOW? LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER’s cast includes five Academy Award® winners – Forest Whitaker, Robin Williams, Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave and Cuba Gooding, Jr. – and two Oscar® nominees, Oprah Winfrey and Terrence Howard.

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The movie doesn’t end at the credits: Family-friendly Discussion Questions

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-How did the murder of Cecil’s father create a ripple effect in his life and the life of his family?

-What did you think of Anabeth Westfall’s advice to young Cecil that “A room should feel empty when you’re in it”? How does he carry this lesson with him throughout his life, and how does he struggle with it?

-What is the first question that the White House maître d’ asks Cecil when he interviews him for the job, and why is it significant?

-How is LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER a tale of two faces? What does Cecil mean when he speaks about the “two faces” every Black person must wear, one face worn to operate around white people and the one worn around other Black people? Why would a person need to adopt two faces?

-How does the film present a study in contrasts between Cecil and his son Louis who is actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement? How are their stories similar and how are they different?

-Why do Gloria and Cecil initially resist the Civil Rights Movement? What makes them change their minds?

-In what way does this younger generation refuse to be submissive when faced with racial oppression? How do they destigmatize and transform being arrested and put in jail into a badge of honor?

-Do you think of Cecil as overly subservient throughout the film? What quiet acts of rebellion are portrayed?

-Is Cecil effective in changing the pay inequity among the Black staff at the White House? Why do you think even liberal presidents did not address unequal pay between white and Black employees?

-What did you think of President Kennedy’s observation that the youth participating in the sit-ins and Freedom Rides changed their hearts? How is this a testimony to the power of nonviolence?

-How would you rate LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER?


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