The director of “Precious” and “The Paperboy” plays things relatively straight in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” a sprawling, highly fictional biopic of longtime White House butler Eugene Allen that also positions itself as a panoramic snapshot of the African-American experience across nine decades. But if Daniels has tamped down the kinky sexuality and outre stylistic flourishes for his first PG-13 outing, his handprints can still be found in the film’s volatile mix of acting styles, gratuitous sentimentality cut with moments of real emotional power, and a tone that seesaws between serious social melodrama and outsized chitlin’-circuit theatrical. At its root the kind of starry, old-fashioned prestige pic the studios used to make, this stealthy late-summer release from the Weinstein Co. (smartly moved up from its original fall date) stands to make a modest killing with oxygen-deprived adult moviegoers, whom the pic will have pretty much to itself between now and the start of awards season.
First reported in a 2008 Washington Post article by Wil Haygood, the story of Allen — who served as a White House butler under eight administrations, eventually achieving the position of maitre d’ — is the stuff that many a producer’s Oscar dreams are made of. So much so that it’s shocking it took years, and more than 40 credited producers of varying kinds, to actually get it to the screen. It’s history as seen through the eyes of the humble envoy to the great men of his time: a black “The King’s Speech” or “The Remains of the Day.” (Daniels himself has likened the film to “Forrest Gump,” a comparison that holds for both good and ill.) And if the real life of your protagonist isn’t inherently dramatic enough … well, that’s what Hollywood screenwriters are for.
So Daniels and writer Danny Strong (a Beltway specialist whose credits include “Recount” and “Game Change”) transform Allen into the fictionalized Cecil Gaines, whose life begins inauspiciously on a Georgia cotton plantation in the 1920s, where he witnesses both of his sharecropper parents (David Banner and Mariah Carey) brutalized by the snarling white boss man (Alex Pettyfer, in one of the pic’s more thankless roles). Shown pity by the elderly matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave), the boy Cecil (Michael Rainey Jr.) is made a “house nigger” and trained in the ways of serving whites that will benefit him over the course of his career. (“The room should feel empty when you’re in it,” Redgrave instructs.)
That kicks off a rather pro-forma account of Gaines’ ascent through the ranks of servitude, first as the teenage apprentice to a kindly North Carolina hotel butler (Clarence Williams III), then on to Washington, D.C.’s swank Excelsior Hotel, where the now-adult Cecil (Forest Whitaker) catches the eye of a senior Truman staffer. The White House scenes that follow prove livelier and more interesting, as Gaines gets indoctrinated by a fussbudget maitre d’ (the excellent Colman Domingo) and learns the ropes from the reigning head butler (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his second-in-command (Lenny Kravitz). In one of the few observations that Daniels doesn’t drive home with a sledgehammer, the presidential mansion is seen as a veritable simulacrum of the plantation house, with the same expectation of “invisibility” for service staff, who are also instructed to see nothing and hear nothing of the sometimes momentous events taking place before them.
Where “Forrest Gump” kept its parade of historical personages restricted to real archival footage, however, “The Butler” nearly capsizes in the first hour under a flotilla of special-guest-star presidents and first ladies who seem imported directly from Madame Tussauds. Given Daniels’ background as a casting director and the savvy stunt casting he’s done in the past, it’s stunning how off most of the calculations are here, from Robin Williams’ embalmed Eisenhower to Alan Rickman’s ghoulishly overacted Reagan. And while Strong has written a sly, funny scene in which then-vice president Nixon panders for votes among the kitchen staff, John Cusack is so un-Nixonian in the role that the whole thing feels like a put-on. (Tyler Perry would have been preferable.) Liev Schreiber and James Marsden fare better as LBJ and JFK, respectively, even if their scenes never quite transcend a certain mechanical, Illustrated Classics feel. Amazingly, the film omits one of the juiciest anecdotes from Haygood’s article, in which JFK blanches at the sight of Sammy Davis Jr. arriving for an official White House soiree with his white wife May Britt on his arm.
Only Whitaker and his stoic, sentry-like presence keep things from turning completely corny. Gaines is a tricky role to navigate because the character is so inherently recessive, but Whitaker digs in deep and gives a marvelous under-the-skin performance; he seems to catch the very essence of a man who has spent his whole life trying not to be seen. In her first live-action dramatic role since 1998’s “Beloved,” Oprah Winfrey makes the most of her few scenes as Cecil’s dutiful wife, Gloria, though she isn’t given much to work with, and the pic’s efforts to manufacture some third-act marital strife feels plastered on for cheap dramatic effect. Meanwhile, whatever seismic historical events don’t pass under Gaines’ nose at work turn up in his living room like clockwork, thanks to one son, Charlie (Elijah Kelly), who goes off to Vietnam, and another, Louis (David Oyelowo), who devotes himself to the civil-rights struggle.
Yet, almost in spite of itself, the film belatedly springs to life, largely thanks to Oyelowo, who plays Louis from a teenager to a middle-aged man with some help from makeup, but mostly with the transformative inner force of a great actor. Even when the plotting remains leaden and predictable, he’s electrifying to watch, and as the character makes his way through various protest movements (from the Freedom Riders to the Black Panthers), Daniels develops a strong sense of the inner complexities and contradictions of the civil-rights landscape. (When Louis shows up for a family dinner looking like a cross between Che Guevara and Eldridge Cleaver, accusing Sidney Poitier — and, indirectly, Cecil himself — of being an Uncle Tom, the scene is pointed and funny for all the right reasons.) Gradually, the tension between Louis’ increasingly radical views and Cecil’s noncommittal ones becomes the most compelling thing about the movie, and Daniels has the good sense to go with it.
“The Butler” is being sold with the ad line “One quiet voice can ignite a revolution,” and the movie strives to suggest that, by sheer, steady force of presence, Gaines — and men and women like him — managed to have a significant impact on race relations in America. But in dramatic terms, it never quite makes the case. Gaines’ voice is so quiet that it takes him until the 1980s to make a stand for equal pay for blacks on the White House staff — a moment Daniels treats as a watershed, but which seems more like a sad reflection on the slow crawl of racial progress at the seat of government and, by extension, in Hollywood, too, where “Driving Miss Daisy” (which “The Butler” also resembles) was trumping “Do the Right Thing” at the Oscars around the same time Gaines would have been asking for that raise. If this is a revolution, one shudders to think of the status quo.
There’s no denying, though, that Daniels knows how to push an audience’s buttons, and as crudely obvious as “The Butler” can be — whether juxtaposing a Woolworth’s lunch-counter protest with a formal White House dinner, or showing a character keeling over at the breakfast table with oxygen tank attached — it’s also genuinely rousing. By the end, it’s hard not to feel moved, if also more than a bit manhandled.
Pic’s modest $25 million budget — small for a period drama of this scale — is reflected in a White House set with a marked soundstage feel, ill served by cinematographer Andrew Dunn’s gauzy, diffuse lighting schemes. But the costumes by Ruth Carter (“Amistad,” “Malcolm X”) are generally superb, as are the prosthetic makeup effects of Clinton Wayne and Oscar winner Matthew Mungle.