Lee Daniels’ The Butler is inspired by the life of Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents during a period (1952—1986) that coincided with seismic changes in African-American life. The film’s source, a Washington Post article that ran shortly after Obama’s election, includes both a history of blacks in presidential administrations and Allen’s memories of various commanders in chief. Daniels, working from a screenplay by Danny Strong (Recount, Game Change), paints in broader strokes, using the story as a springboard for a veritable greatest-hits of the civil rights movement. Forest Whitaker plays the fictionalized butler (renamed Cecil Gaines), who as a boy in 1926 sees his father shot on a Georgia plantation. The murderous landowners train him to be a house servant. A job at a hotel eventually leads to work at the White House, where Cecil witnesses everything from Eisenhower’s role in the desegregation of Little Rock schools to Reagan’s reluctance to impose sanctions on apartheid-era South Africa. At the same time, his son (David Oyelowo) goes from being a Freedom Rider to a Black Panther to a congressman from Tennessee.
As history, The Butler’s parade of famous moments and figures is superficial to the point of trivialization, reducing years of turmoil to glib sound bites. But in its square, melodramatic way, the movie has a serious point to make: Like Tanya Hamilton’s much-superior Night Catches Us, it argues that change often comes about through multiple channels—some revolutionary, others less so. (The film unnecessarily hammers home this idea by having no less than Martin Luther King Jr., played by Nelsan Ellis, inform Oyelowo that his father has played a quietly important role in history.) Chronicling six decades, the movie captures changing attitudes toward protest. While the contrast between scenes of family life and major events can be mortifyingly on-the-nose (“I don’t care about what goes on in that house,” Oprah Winfrey, as Whitaker’s wife, snaps after the Kennedy assassination. “I care about what goes on in this house!”), cringeworthy passages alternate with powerful interludes, as when the son’s sit-in at a segregated lunch counter is crosscut with Whitaker helping to set the table at the White House.
By having Nicole Kidman void herself on Zac Efron in The Paperboy, Daniels opened himself to a lot of bad jokes, but The Butler is a vastly more conventional and watchable film, worth taking on its own terms. As a director, Daniels remains maddeningly erratic; like Precious, The Butler has a tendency to undermine its material with caricature, and the presidential casting here is a particular embarrassment. Who wouldn’t think of Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, or Alan Rickman as Reagan? (Ford and Carter are passed over in a montage; maybe De Niro wasn’t available.) And just because LBJ (Liev Schreiber) was known for intimidating aides by inviting them to watch him defecate doesn’t mean his constipated nattering meshes with this film’s tone. Clearly, there’s something of The Paperboy’s bathroom obsession in The Butler. But mostly, the movie is a straightforward soap opera—sentimental, reductive, and, in spite of itself, satisfying.