Given the amount of white baby boomer nostalgia we've been flooded with for the last two decades, there should be just as many films about the civil rights movement, and specifically the Freedom Riders, young idealists who fought and died for an unerringly virtuous cause. Lee Daniels' The Butler is, in at least a few scenes, the Freedom Riders movie we've been waiting for, visceral and passionate and led by David Oyelowo, convincingly playing a young activist from his teenage years through old age.
Except, as the title suggests, Lee Daniels' The Butler is in fact about the father of Oyelowo's character, a butler who worked in the White House from the Eisenhower administration up to the arrival of Ronald Reagan. Based on a true story and a stirring Washington Post article, The Butler-- can we ditch that awkward title for the sake of this review, at least?-- filters decades of tumultuous history through the unassuming figure of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a man who witnessed great power but held none of it. That makes Cecil an interesting historical footnote, and probably a man with great stories to tell, but a deadly passive central figure in a story with much more interesting characters surrounding him.
The fact that those other characters are played by a constellation of big stars keeps The Butler entertaining, at least, as it cruises through history like a visit to Disney's Hall of Presidents. We start with Cecil on the sharecropper farm where he worked as a child, and where the petulant young owner (Alex Pettyfer, perfectly cast) rapes Cecil's mother (Mariah Carey) and murders his father without a second look. The owner's kindly mother (Vanessa Redgrave) trains Cecil to work inside the house and soon he's packed his bags off to the city, where a bartender (Clarence Williams III) trains him, a fancy D.C. hotel hires him, and soon Cecil's been scouted to join the kitchen staff at the White House.
Working alongside pals played by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz, and of course a rotating cast of actors dressed up like Presidents, Cecil accomplishes… well, he accomplishes hanging on to a well-paying job, and occasionally lobbying to his boss for equal pay for black and white employees-- his one nod toward the civil rights movement exploding around him. Years pass, White House administrations change, and we see Cecil have some kind of meaningful moment with nearly every President who comes by (Jimmy Carter, for whatever reason, is absent). The way Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong tell it, a single conversation with Cecil inspired Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to support integration, Kennedy (James Marsden) to support voting rights, Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber) to promote the Great Society, and Nixon (John Cusack) to at least think for a second about all the awful things he's done. Cecil's humble, quiet presence can't quite convince Reagan (Alan Rickman) to speak out against apartheid, but hey, a single butler can't change all of history on his own.
Back at home, Cecil's job pays for a modest but comfortable house, a college education for his son Louis (Oyelowo), and a way for his wife (Oprah Winfrey) to stay home and raise the kids. In her first screen performance since 1998's Beloved, and never acting for a second like she's anything less than the most famous person in the cast, Oprah is straight-up channeling Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?. She pours herself drinks and swans around the house, donning a series of wigs as Cecil's troubled, outrageously bored wife, careening toward alcoholism while her husband is busy caring for Presidential families. It's an odd note to strike in a movie that's otherwise doggedly devoted to the story of what the poster calls how "one quiet voice can ignite a revolution," but as out of place as she may be, Oprah brings some much-needed levity-- and eventually high drama-- to the film. A subplot in which her character gives in to temptation with a neighbor (Terrence Howard) goes nowhere, but it gives Oprah the flirtatious line "What you doing with my hangers?" and God love it for that. When Cecil comes home the day Kennedy is shot, her honest-to-God response is "I'm really sorry about the President. But you and that White House can kiss my ass." How can anybody else be expected to compete with that?
Oyelowo is the only actor who does compete, giving yet another one of the focused, intense performances that's made him such a promising up-and-comer. But he and Whitaker seem to be in a completely different film than Oprah and others, whose performances are imported from a movie more like Lee Daniels efforts like Precious and The Paperboy, one willing to go gonzo for better or for worse. The Butler feels like Daniels straightening his shoulders and trying to grow up, and except for a few dramatic scenes-- attacks on the Freedom Riders, a dinner table conflict between Cecil and Louis, the D.C. riots that followed Martin Luther King's assassination-- the film operates at the same even, needlessly stuffy level. Somewhere between Oyelowo and Whitaker's natural acting and the dinner-theater craziness of John Cusack's sweaty Richard Nixon, The Butler gets torn in too many directions, a story with too much to say and almost no effective way of saying it.