Occasionally moving, sweeping in ambition yet often haphazard in execution, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is an epic that more closely resembles a made-for-TV movie or miniseries, albeit one from the high-minded heyday of TV movies, the ’70s. Think “Backstairs at the White House,” if your memory goes that far back.
Covering more than 80 years of American history through the eyes of a White House butler and his family — decades of strife and conflict, from segregation to the election of Barack Obama to the presidency — “The Butler” features Oscar winner Forest Whitaker in the title role, Oscar nominee Oprah Winfrey as co-star, and Oscar winners Robin Williams, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Vanessa Redgrave in supporting roles. The director of “Precious” is like catnip to actors.
We follow a sharecropper’s son who saw his father murdered by a white landowner (Alex Pettyfer) in 1920s Georgia, a boy raised to know service, that “The room should feel empty with you in it” by the matron of the house (Redgrave), who rose from hotel waiter and butler to the White House, just as Eisenhower (Williams) is deciding to send troops into Little Rock to integrate the schools.
No matter how careful the instructions from his peers (Lenny Kravitz, Gooding) about how he should “never listen or react to conversations,” Cecil Gaines hears all and sees all. And every now and then, Kennedy (James Marsden, a dead ringer for Bobby, too short for Jack) or Nixon (John Cusack) or Reagan (Alan Rickman, the most presidential of the lot) will actually ask his opinion, being the handiest black voter these seven presidents whom Cecil served know.
Meanwhile, at home, Cecil’s wife Gloria (Winfrey) drinks and tries to raise their two sons in the absence of a husband who lets his job come first.
“I don’t CARE what goes on in THAT house,” she grouses. “I care what goes on in THIS house.”
And well she should, because their college-bound son (David Oyelowo) is traveling through the ’60s and ’70s like an African-American Forrest Gump — jailed as a Freedom Rider, fan of Malcolm X, a man in the hotel room with Martin Luther King Jr. just before his murder and later a Black Panther militant.
The strains of the times play out in pop-music montages, news footage of assassinations and riots and Walter Cronkite detailing the horrors of the Vietnam War and annoyances of gas rationing.
But as a movie, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” — the title was the subject of Hollywood arbitration — is as ungainly as that title. It’s a maddeningly spotty exercise, covering too much too quickly, with clunky, pointless narration and soap opera-ish melodrama (Gloria drinks with their neighbor, the fresh Terrence Howard) taking attention from the sweep of history.
That said, though, there are heartfelt moments that remind us why this “inspired by a true story” seemed moving enough to film. All this really did happen over the course of the life of one man (the real butler’s name was Eugene Allen), from lynchings and the murder of civil rights activists to an African-American president.
The patchwork story and pacing robs “The Butler” of the wit and heart that might have made it a companion piece to the far simpler and more powerful “The Help.” Daniels settles for a soap opera, a preachy American history version of “Downton Abbey.”