Thanks to a lawsuit challenging The Weinstein Co.'s right to use the title The Butler, the full, official title is now Lee Daniels' The Butler. And even if the director's name is unfamiliar to you, you may realize by the end why auteurist credit is so appropriate for this movie.
Lee Daniels, you see, is not a subtle filmmaker. Best known for the Oscar-winning misery-wallow Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, Daniels also oversaw last year's swampy, fairly demented adaptation of Pete Dexter's The Paperboy, which became most infamous for a tender moment in which Nicole Kidman saves Zac Efron's life from jellyfish stings by peeing all over his face. Call it a gift for picking source material, but Daniels has seemed to understand where his distinctive brand of visual too-much might actually be just right.
He's at it again with this loose adaptation of the life story of former White House butler Eugene Allen, turned here into a fellow named Cecil Gaines. Born on a Georgia plantation in 1918, Cecil witnesses the sexual abuse of his mother and the murder of his father at the hands of the plantation's white owner, before eventually learning how to be an effective house servant — that "the room should feel empty when you're in it." His ability to avoid conflicts and please people catches the eye of a White House recruiter, who brings Cecil on during the Eisenhower administration, beginning service that would take him into the Reagan years.
Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong focus largely on the dynamics within the Gaines family, yielding an odd mixed bag of results. The conflict between Cecil and his oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo) — who becomes first a Martin Luther King Jr.-following non-violent protester, and eventually a Black Panther — becomes a filter for the civil rights era philosophical battle between assimilation and agitation; the battles with alcoholism of Cecil's wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), serve as little more than melodramatic fodder for "you care more about your job than you care about us" material. Overall, the competent execution rests largely on the solidly effective Whittaker and the increasingly "I need to see everything this guy does" Oyelowo.
Yet there's also an impossible collision between this story's sense of self-importance and Daniels' oddball choices. It's frustrating enough to find the narrative zipping through and name-checking crucial historical moments — it sometimes feels like Forest Whittaker Gump — just because there's so much ground to cover. But then there are the stunt casting choices for various presidents, ranging from the perfectly satisfactory (James Marsden as John F. Kennedy) to the thoroughly distracting (John Cusack as Nixon; Robin Williams as Eisenhower).
If there's any way Lee Daniels' The Butler is likely to divide viewers, however, it's in the way the narrative builds to Barack Obama's election in 2008. Within the context of the film, it becomes the grand culmination of the entire civil rights movement — which is bound to drive some people crazy, even as Daniels and Strong convey how powerful this moment could be to black Americans born during the era of Jim Crow.
Perhaps if Daniels had focused on this emotional arc of history, rather than funky distractions and over-the-top visual moments, he could have nailed this story. But then again, that probably wouldn't be Lee Daniels' The Butler.