Lee Daniels' The Butler: Film Review

A schematic but emotionally effective survey of the civil rights movement from the unique perspective of a White House butler.

Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey lead a star-studded cast of The Weinstein Company drama that tells the story of the civil rights movement from the point of view of a White House butler.

Inspiring if not inspired, Lee Daniels' The Butler is a sort of Readers' Digest overview of the 20th century American civil rights movement centered on an ordinary individual with an extraordinary perspective. This fictionalized account of a Southern black man who worked as a White House butler under seven presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan is a very middle-of-the-road movie politically and aesthetically with myriad issues to carp about. But the long arc of this man's story, which begins in a Georgia cotton field and ends with an invitation back to his longtime work place to meet the first black president of the United States, describes a personal, racial and national journey in a way that is quite moving and will have a powerful effect on all manner of audiences, with the presumed exception of highbrows and real leftists. The film's costar, Oprah Winfrey, will personally see to it that masses of people are mobilized to turn out, older viewers will welcome something to see other than sci-fi and comics-derived extravaganzas, and The Weinstein Company's decision to bypass the early fall festivals to seize the same August release slot The Help occupied two summers ago will likely prove to be a shrewd one.

For Winfrey, the film marks a return to acting for the first time since Beloved in 1998; for Daniels, who ironically got his name added to the title just last month due to a dispute with Warner Bros. even though he was a latecomer to the project, this represents respectable material diametrically opposed to his deliberately trashy and inflammatory last outing, The Paperboy, and for producers it's a field day, as 37 individuals are listed on the credits with the word “producer” attached to their names in some form, surely a record. Deserving special mention among them, however, is Laura Ziskin, whose final passion project this was before her death.

PHOTOS: 'Lee Daniels' The Butler' Premiere: Oprah, Forest Whitaker and Anna Wintour Walk the Red Carpet in NY

Long-retired White House maitre d'hotel Eugene Allen was a figure unknown to the public until Nov. 7, 2008, three days after Barack Obama's election as president, when Wil Haygood's article about his unusual life appeared in The Washington Post. To eliminate dramatic constraints and, in at least a couple of unfortunate ways, to build up cheap melodrama, the script by Danny Strong (the estimable Recount and Game Change) fictionalizes the leading character by renaming him Cecil Gaines, who is eloquently played by Forest Whitaker as a picture of modesty and rectitude, an unchanging human bastion of calm and reliability in a 20th century world that is anything but.

While some modern black viewers may join the Cecil's more radical son in objecting to the ennobling of an old-fashioned, get-along sort of man, more than a few whites might blanch at the manipulative melodrama of the opening scene, which evidently bears no relation to Allen's actual life. As if in a particularly lurid passage from Mandingo, the mad-eyed young heir (Alex Pettyfer) to a Georgia cotton farm, circa 1926, drags young Cecil's mother (Mariah Carey!) out of the field to rape her, then shoots his father dead when the man protests. There's no legal recourse, but the miscreant's old mother (Vanessa Redgrave!) unwittingly sets the grieving boy on his career course by making him the house you-know-what. The caricaturing here is extreme and creates immediate worries about what's to come.

As a young man, Cecil gets waiter and bartender jobs at increasingly exclusive whites-only venues, marries Gloria (Winfrey), who bears two sons and, upon applying for a White House kitchen job in 1957, is immediately asked by the reigning maitre d' (an excellent Colman Domingo), “Are you political?” It's clear that, if he were to give the wrong answer, the interview would go no further. Once he wins the coveted job — vacancies on the traditionally all-black staff occur very infrequently — he's sworn to secrecy and is advised that, “You hear nothing, you see nothing. You only serve.”

VIDEO: 'Lee Daniels' The Butler' Trailer

As it happens, President Eisenhower (Robin Williams!) is just then dealing with the deeply divisive issue of forced integration of schools in Arkansas. While painting one day, Ike tries to draw the reluctant Cecil out on the subject and when the president sends in army troops in enforce the court order, Cecil returns home to admiringly remark that this is “the first time I ever saw a president stick his neck out for us.”

And so begins the march of history through the eyes of a man whose job makes him a largely silent witness to select slivvers of high-level crises, decision-making and tragedy. Not nearly as personable as his boss, Vice President Nixon (John Cusack!) shows up in the kitchen with some campaign pins to awkwardly court the help's votes; Cecil attempts to read Madeline to little Caroline Kennedy, who would rather know who the Freedom Riders are (Cecil's older son Louis is one), then tends to Jackie when she arrives at the White House from Dallas, still wearing the blood-stained pink outfit; LBJ (Liev Schreiber!) calls a meeting of staffers while taking a dump; Cecil overhears Nixon, now president, voicing his desire to co-op the Black Panthers, which the increasingly radical Louis has now joined, and some years later is asked by the Watergate-beclouded chief executive to sit with him for some drunken late-night commiseration.

With her husband constantly on call and so devoted to his work, Gloria has too much time on her hands; her turning to drink and extra-marital temptations are lightly sketched in. The contrast between the couple's two sons could not be more blatantly schematic, however. Louis (David Oyelowo), under the influence of his foxy girlfriend Carol (Yaya Alafia, the co-star of Mother of George under the name Yaya DaCosta), becomes increasingly radicalized, arguing with his parents (“Sidney Poitier is nothing but a rich Uncle Tom!,” he rants about their favorite actor) and adding insult to injury when he refuses to attend the funeral of his younger brother Charlie (Elijah Kelley), who enthusiastically enlists in the army, only to be killed in 'Nam.

Martin Luther King passes through, the '70s bring the mainstreaming of black culture via clips from Soul Train and Sanford & Son, Louis abandons extremism to run for Congress and, by the time Gloria finally gets her wish to set foot in the White House after all the years when the Reagans (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda!) invite the Gaineses to be their guests at a state dinner (Cecil being waited on by his old pals offers frissons both awkward and amusing), the venerable couple seem to have drawn closer and reached a loving mutual accommodation. (Presidents Ford and Carter are blithely skipped over in this telling.)

And yet, even with all contrivances and obvious point-making and familiar historical signposting, Daniels' The Butler is always engaging, often entertaining and certainly never dull, the latter a fault for which neither the director nor the writer, thus far in their careers, can ever be accused. Each scene has its purpose and complimentary energy, the actors all seem unified in a joint cause and the angle from which the historical panorama is presented remains sufficiently unusual to sustain rapt attention. This is not an artful, tidy or sophisticated film, but its subject and his stationary odyssey are of such a singular nature that, as a great playwright once wrote, attention must be paid to such a person.

Aging realistically as a years flip by, Whitaker remains locked within a narrow range due to his character's requisite discretion but creates a finely tuned portrait of a man for whom patience, fortitude and playing by the rules are paramount virtues; by the end, it emerges as a genuinely stirring performance. With her drunk scenes and sporadic venting of frustrations, Winfrey has more dramatic opportunities and is quite enjoyable to watch, her enormous wealth and status since her last movie outing having encumbered her with no noticeable grande dame affectations.

Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz have their moments as fellow longtime butlers with Cecil, while Terrence Howard, a front tooth missing, lounges around as a neighborhood layabout. As for the celebrity casting for White House occupants, no matter how outrageous or physically inexact each instance of it may seem, you just sort of roll with it. One probably wouldn't want to see any of these fine actors play these presidents for two hours, but for the brief moments when they're on, they're at least game and amusing; by the time you've tried to make an initial mental adjustment and begun assessing what's ludicrously wrong and sometimes vaguely right about any of them, they're gone and it's on to the next match-up. Perhaps surprisingly -- and most jarringly, given real-life politics -- the best cameo of this nature comes from Jane Fonda, who is very good indeed as a gracious Nancy Reagan.

The unusual choice of Portuguese composer Rodrigo Leao has paid off in a flavorsome, non-cookie cutter score that's abetted by a raft of pop tunes that helps identify the quickly passing time periods.

Opens: Friday, Aug. 16 (The Weinstein Company)
Production: Laura Ziskin Productions, Windy Hill Pictures, Follow Through Productions, Salamander Pictures, Pam Williams Productions
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams, Yaya Alafia, Aml Ameen, Lavell “Banner” Crump, Colman Domingo, Nelsan Ellis, Nealla Gordon, Elijah Kelley, Minka Kelly, Adriane Lenox, Mo McRae, Pernell Walker, Jesse Williams, Clarence Williams III
Director: Lee Daniels
Screenwriter: Danny Strong, inspired by the article “A Butler Well Served By This Election” by Wil Haygood
Producers: Pamela Oas Williams, Laura Ziskin, Lee Daniels, Buddy Patrick, Cassian Elwes
Executive producers: Michael Finley, Sheila C. Johnson, Brett Johnson, Matthew Salloway, Earl W. Stafford, Danny Strong, Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein, Len Blavatnik, Aviv Giladi, Vince Holden, James T. Bruce IV, R. Bryan Wright, Liz Destro, Jordan Kessler, Hilary Shor, Adam Merims
Director of photography: Andrew Dunn
Production designer: Tim Galvin
Costume designer: Ruth Carter
Editor: Joe Klotz
Music: Rodrigo Leao
PG-13 rating, 132 minutes