The civil rights era in U.S. history has too many touchstones for one movie to cover but Lee Daniels doesn't care. Daniels has the ideal opportunity to address them all in The Butler, inspired by but not entirely based on the career of Eugene Allen, a White House servant to eight presidents during times of racial change.
Any of these historical tragedies, atrocities and triumphs could each fill a movie in their own right and have, from Little Rock desegregation to assaults upon Freedom Riders to an assassin's bullet in Memphis. From cotton field indignities to the rise and fall of the Black Panthers, the path to equal civil rights is more familiar on film than this director realizes.
Yet Daniels shoehorns each one into The Butler, as if no other filmmaker ever had the courage and this is the only chance for these stories to be told on screen. There's something both admirable and exasperating about that approach; None of these important stories get the attention they deserve with such a truncated technique. The Butler is a classy production, well-acted throughout but its reach exceeds Daniels' creative grasp.
The Allen character is renamed Cecil Gaines, portrayed with lumbering sensitivity by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker. Stoic and silent, Cecil is present when history is made but remains apolitical in the background, because that's how African-Americans were conditioned to be. The sprawl of history becomes the movie's disadvantage since each president — and the big-time movie stars playing them — gets only brief screen time.
As written by Danny Strong, Cecil is a composite of several White House servants and black history books, with Cecil's rebellious son, Louis (David Oyelowo), possessing a Gumpian ability to be wherever history is being made. Louis joins a lunch counter sit-in, the Freedom Riders and the Black Panthers, leaves Malcolm X's final speech minutes before his murder, and editing suggests he's in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s motel room at the time of his assassination. The movie therefore dances on a tenuous thread of credibility even though critical events are true.
The Gaineses' domestic tumult could make a fine, concise movie all its own, without the White House insider angle. Cecil's old-guard submissiveness to white authority and Louis' escalating rage against it is the source of The Butler's strongest drama, and where it makes its points clearest. The turmoil in their home is both eased and compounded by Cecil's wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey, reminding us what a terrific actor she can be). By narrowing his movie's focus Daniels could express something deeper than a checklist of historical events.
The Butler eventually becomes something less than the sum of its impressively staged parts. By the time Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are reduced to montage snippets we're relieved they didn't face any civil rights crises Daniels deems important. It's rare to wish a movie were an hour or two longer, when it already feels an hour longer than it is.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.