There's a lot of indicating going on in The Butler, Lee Daniels's sorta-based-on-a-true-story historical drama about a longtime White House butler and the tumult of the civil rights struggle. As is the trouble with so many biopics, films that often play like hurried slideshows of a life, The Butler attempts to infuse every scene with Importance and Meaning. To that end, five past U.S. presidents each get a scene talking specifically about race issues, while our hero, played by Forest Whitaker, does his quiet work around them. For a melancholy Eisenhower, played by Robin Williams, it's the matter of school integration. Kennedy (a better than expected James Marsden) frets about the injustices suffered by the Freedom Riders and their allies. Johnson, given charming good-ol-boy bluntness by Liev Schreiber, vows to fix the whole dang mess. John Cusack, doing a surprisingly understated Nixon, dirtily strategizes about courting the black vote. And Reagan, mostly bungled by an oddly accented Alan Rickman, mulls over the civil rights crisis in South Africa. Each scene is a little package presentation about the respective presidents' stances on civil rights, meant to inform us while briskly moving the story along.
But instead they do the unfortunate work of reducing the long, painful struggle to a series of soundbites. There's nothing particularly informative or dramatic about Danny Strong's script or the way Daniels stages it. Neither insightful documentary nor compelling fiction, The Butler spends most of its time in the dreary middle lands of corny reenactment, pointing and pointing and pointing at flat moments meant to be profound, moving, enlightening. Whitaker does lovely work throughout, but his character, Cecil Gaines, spends most of the movie passively receiving all this canned history. He's ultimately a cipher, bobbing along in a broad simplification of American history like Forrest Gump, only without all the endearing goofiness and homey sayings.
Cecil's oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) goes through all his "necessary" phases too: from smart and rebellious youth to radicalizing college student to courageous Freedom Rider to angry Black Panther to earnest adult politician. His arc feels very programmatic (and was invented for the film), Daniels and Strong articulating the civil rights struggle in its most basic terms. The history of the era only feels vital when Cecil and Louis are together and fighting, the father whose job it is to be invisible clashing with the son who wants to be seen. In one tense, engrossing scene, a reunion dinner is ruined when Louis's (and his Black Panther girlfriend's) obvious disdain for his father's relatively bourgeoisie, unquestioning life sends Cecil into a rare rage. Daniels is much better when he's closing in on the personal, the domestic texture of the larger political landscape. But alas he keeps pulling back and in strides another famous person who sorta looks like an old president to let us know where we are in the story.
The film is indeed full of famous people — aside from those I've already mentioned, there's Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as fellow butlers, a wordless Mariah Carey as Cecil's traumatized mother, Terrence Howard as a ne'er-do-well neighbor, Jane Fonda commanding attention as Nancy Reagan — but certainly none is more famous than Oprah Winfrey. (Unless you're a Swiss boutique clerk, at least.) Winfrey plays Cecil's wife Gloria, and unlike most of the other familiar faces who quickly glide by and disappear as history marches along, she's really in the movie. Oprah's proven herself a capable actress in her few roles over the past thirty years, and handles a lot of heavy lifting proficiently. She boozes, she grieves, she seethes, she sobers up. She's good in the film, but like so much of the other bold-name casting, it unfortunately reads distractingly like a gimmick. It adds to the sense that The Butler is a message more than a movie.
One well-conceived sequence weaves together shots of the White House staff preparing for a fancy state dinner and a lunch counter sit-in that turns violent. Gleaming silverware is straightened and plates rotated just so as Louis and his friends are beaten and have hot coffee thrown in their faces. It's an effective, if a bit obvious, juxtaposition and hints at a movie Daniels could have made. It's a rare moment in The Butler when anticipation for the next famous face or Big Moment dissipates and we are instead truly startled and horrified by the injustices, and stirred by the bravery, of the fairly recent past. It's been a long time since we've had a good movie about this defining (and not-really-over) part of our history, and there are teasing moments in The Butler when I thought we might be getting just that. But for all the beauty in Whitaker's precise, restrained performance and the array of talent that surrounds him, the movie leaves little impact. Strangely for a Lee Daniels movie, it's too polite, too much an attempt at universal appeal in all of its sentimentality. It's inoffensive, but if it weren't for all the star caliber, you wouldn't even notice it in a room.