As a brief and inventively plotted history of race relations in America over a half century and a character study of a witness to sociopolitical machinery, The Butler has so many things going right for it, you want to wish away some of the elements working against it. In this story of an African-American butler (Forest Whitaker) in the White House through five presidencies, much of the diminished potential comes through strained realities and blows against veracity; it’s surprising when you compare it to director Lee Daniels brilliant previous film, Precious, which was blessed with a rare rawness and emotional grit.
This time around, Daniels goes more for the glossy movieplex manners of standard Hollywood films, with a formulaic style and the biopic sin of montage-mindedness, dulling us into a submissive, cliché-munching moviegoer’s role and taking away the prospects of much of the film’s would-be power. Although based on the true story of Eugene Allen, who grew up on a cotton farm but ended up working in the White House between 1952 and 1986, much of the story has been altered to pump up the narrative intrigue, including the invention of a central son character named Louis (David Oyelowo). Louis’s various maneuvers as he goes through school and into life find him engaged in the unfolding civil rights movement, Freedom Riders, Black Panthers, and a believability-straining Zelig-like encounter with Martin Luther King Jr., putting him in stark juxtaposition to the careful neutrality and apolitical cool of his father on the job.
While the script and premise plots its uneven and often disappointing course, we are kept attuned to the film, thanks to the fascination of its historical mapping and the power of much of the acting. In particular, Whitaker practices the restrained cool we’ve seen, in a very different setting, in Ghost Dog, and Oprah Winfrey gives her best and most nuanced screen performance yet as the Butler’s wise, long-suffering wife. It is partly a sideshow amusement to observe the rogue’s gallery of known actors playing U.S. presidents, including John Cusack, against type, as Nixon, with the enlarged nose, and Liev Schreiber as LBJ, with enlarged earlobes, and, in another casting wink-wink gesture, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan.
Ambitious in its scope, and an important film in terms of bringing the African-American saga into America’s public consciousness, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a rousing success on many fronts, even if its filmic and truth cred are wanting.