1. Lee Daniels is a total lunatic of a director, a man who knows nothing of restraint, decorum or moderation. Sometimes this works for him; his Precious was lurid and garish and melodramatic in a way that fit the material, making the protagonist's sufferings feel both pulpy and weirdly real. Mostly, though, it doesn't, as in The Paperboy, one of the worst movies of last year, which was so over-the-top and ridiculous and bewildering you imagined Daniels huffing glue in between shots. (He's part Douglas Sirk, part Russ Meyer.) He's therefore the exact opposite of the type of person you put in charge of a big, Oscar-baiting historical drama; there is nothing respectable about Daniels, for better and for worse. So one approaches Daniels' The Butler, about a black butler who served in the White House for 34 years, as a peculiar artifact. You half expect Oprah Winfrey to come out and pee on somebody.
2. Thus, it's sort of surprising how well The Butler works, often in spite of itself. The movie is an ongoing battle between the highbrow, establishment instincts of Winfrey (who produced the film, stars in it, and is largely responsible for the film's existence) and Daniels' prurient ham-fisted batshittery. The movie is effective because neither side wins. The Prestige Movie that Winfrey clear wants helps to reign in Daniels' crazier instincts, but Daniels's inherent go-for-it button-mashing tendencies helps wring some legitimate emotion out of a movie that might feel too staid otherwise. There's a lot of silliness in The Butler, and a lot of self-congratulatory self-seriousness, but put them together, and the whole thing somehow holds together.
3. The movie follows the fictionalized story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker)—it's based on a true story and a real person, but Daniels, Winfrey and screenwriter Danny Strong take so many liberties with the real-life tale that they had to just make the whole thing fiction—who grows up in poverty in Georgia but moves to Washington DC to serve as a butler. He's hired by the White House and serves several administrations while marrying an alcoholic (played by Winfrey, who's quite good in the role) and raising a son, Lewis (David Oyelowo), who becomes an activist and ends up joining the Black Panthers. Thus, the story of black people in America in the second half of the 20th Century is conveniently told. Cecil sees the major civil rights battles through the eyes of the Presidents (many of whom know only one black person: Cecil) and his son fights his way through the same battles on the streets of Birmingham and Memphis. Daniels has compared the film to Forrest Gump—only Daniels would be reckless enough to compare his film to the one film he shouldn't be coming near with a 50-foot pole—but it's more like Cecil and his son are signposts, for the major pivots in American civil rights history.
4. That sounds obnoxious, and it sort of is, but Daniels grounds their relationship in a solid place. Their interaction is the most moving part of the film. Cecil believes Lewis is causing trouble and putting himself at risk as an insult to all the work Cecil has put in to try to give him a better life; Lewis thinks Cecil a tool of the white man and part of the problem. (At one point, during a riveting dinner-table argument, Cecil even calls him an Uncle Tom.) Even when the movies is meandering into unnecessary subplots and speechifying, the relationship between Cecil and Lewis remains relatable and universal. Theirs is a generational battle that's still going on today—everybody at one point thinks their dad is too staid and their kid is too brash—and whenever Whitaker or Oyelowo are on screen, the movie soars.
5. The scenes in the White House with the Presidents are ultimately sort of gimmicky, a they-got-who?-to-play-Nixon parlor game that's mostly distracting. That said, I'd be remiss if I didn't just go ahead and rank the Presidents here, since they're all on screen for about five minutes apiece:
James Marsden as JFK
Liev Schreiber as LBJ
Alan Rickman as Reagan
John Cusack as Nixon (who seems to just be dicking around)
Robin Williams as Eisenhower
And Jane Fonda is as charming as Nancy Reagan as Minka Kelly is stupid as Jackie O. (Amusingly, they don't even bother to dramatize Ford or Carter.)
This is the central tension of The Butler, the fight between the movie's desire to be both Important and Pop Bordering On Camp. Not everything in the movie holds up, and you're likely to find the movie's insistence on hanging every major moment in African-American history on the shoulders of a fictional butler and his family cloying and irritating at times. But what can I say? The movie still got to me. Daniels can wring a scene for all its worth, and he does plenty of wringing. I don't think the movie is quite capital-r Respectable enough to be winning the Best Picture Oscar it so desperately wants, but at the right moments, it's undeniably moving. It's calculated and plodding and way, way too much at times. It's still hard to resist. I eventually gave up, and gave in.