The premise for The Butler holds plenty of intrigue. There’s a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour of the White House during more than 30 years’ worth of presidential administrations. Plus, there’s a comprehensive examination of the American civil rights movement through one family at its center.
So why does the latest film from director Lee Daniels (Precious) feel more like a history lecture than a consistently compelling drama? It doesn’t have enough confidence in its story without introducing various heavy-handed gimmicks to manipulate audience emotion.
Forest Whitaker is terrific in the title role, balancing strength and vulnerability as an inspirational man who overcame a difficult childhood to serve as a White House butler for every president from Eisenhower to Reagan.
Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, who became a server only after the cold-blooded murder of his father in a cotton field when he was a child. Eventually, he lands a job on the White House staff during the 1950s, around the time the civil rights movement is starting in earnest around the country.
Although such issues obviously are of interest to him, Cecil can’t publicly take a stance. As he’s told upon his hiring, “We have no tolerance for politics at the White House.” That causes friction at home, especially straining his relationship with his oldest son (David Oyelowo) who becomes a political activist. The long hours also drive his devoted wife (Oprah Winfrey) to alcoholism.
The contrast between his work life and home life forms the basis for the bulk of the narrative, with Cecil spending most of his time in a sheltered bubble while his fellow citizens are fighting for equality.
The Butler has grabbed some headlines for its eclectic casting choices, especially when it comes to famous figures — Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, to name a few. Yet it’s more than just celebrity spotting and aging makeup.
The film’s episodic structure keeps the pace moving while glossing over some compelling details. However, credit the script by Danny Strong with examining civil rights from a cultural perspective and remaining neutral when it comes to presidential politics. There are no clear-cut heroes or villains.
The film pays worthwhile tribute to its subject and showcases some powerful moments, even if the approach is compromised by preachy melodramatic tendencies.
Rated R, 132 minutes.