A character-packed ride through nine decades of African American history, “Lee Daniels' 'The Butler'” contains content too significant to be ignored and a splendid lead performance. But heavy-handedness and sentimentality prevent it from triumphing as either the sweeping civil-rights saga or powerful family drama that is intended.
Director Daniels, whose previous films (“Precious,” “The Paperboy”) have contained over-the-top characters and sordidness, has shifted gears for this old-fashioned, deliberately conventional chronicle of a man's personal journey set against a backdrop of civil rights in America.
Likened by Daniels to a Forrest Gump of sorts, protagonist Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is an African American career butler (based on real-life Eugene Allen), who, in voiceover, reflects on his life.
On a 1920s Georgia plantation, an 8-year-old Cecil learns the domestic-service ropes from a matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) whose racist grandson has killed Cecil's father.
“The room should feel empty when you're in it,” she instructs the boy. Those words will define his demeanor for decades.
After two hotel jobs, the grown Cecil proudly joins the domestic staff at the White House. He serves seven presidents, from Eisenhower to Reagan. Regardless of what he sees or hears, he holds his tongue. At home, his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), ignored by her White House devoted husband, drinks heavily.
College-age son Louis (David Oyelowo) disapproves of his father's subservient livelihood and becomes involved in the civil-rights struggle. He joins the Freedom Riders and the Black Panthers. His acts of protest distress Cecil.
As a celebration of the civil rights movement, the film merits seeing, especially by those too young to remember the complex, messy, impassioned and monumental struggle it was. Unlike “The Help,” the film tells a story of black progress without inserting a white catalyst into the brew.
Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong also deliver amusing period banter, observant material about African-American-specific 1960s generation gaps, and genuinely moving moments, as when Cecil reacts to the election of Barack Obama as president.
Unfortunately, though, this trip proves too uneven to be able to soar over its Oscar-seeking long haul.
The White House material, which consists of a stream of presidents, each played by an actor more recognizable as himself than as the prez he's playing (Robin Williams as Eisenhower, etc.) is a dudsville of stock characteristics (Kennedy: Addison's disease; LBJ: beagle). Similarly, civil-rights events occur, checklist-style: school desegregation, JFK assassination, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X.
But performances excel. Whitaker is superb playing an understated character, exquisitely underlying Cecil's surface passivity with feeling and thought. Oyelowo stands out as Louis, and Winfrey's Gloria is palpable in her unhappiness and often entertaining, even if we can't quite ignore she's Oprah in period garb.
Lee Daniels' The Butler
Starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, and Cuba Gooding Jr.
Written by Danny Strong
Directed by Lee Daniels
Running time 2 hours, 12 minutes