Even if you're unfamiliar with Lee Daniels, it's easy to see why his name appears in the title of Lee Daniels' The Butler, a film based on the life of former White House butler Eugene Allen.
Daniels is not a subtle filmmaker. Best known for the Oscar-winning misery-wallow Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, he also oversaw last year's swampy, demented adaptation of Pete Dexter's The Paperboy, which is infamous for a moment in which Nicole Kidman saves Zac Efron's life by peeing on his face when he's stung by a jellyfish. Call it a special gift for picking source material, but Daniels knows where his over-the-top visuals are just what's needed.
He's at it again with this loose adaptation of Allen's life story. Daniels turns Allen into a fellow named Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). Born on a Georgia plantation in 1918, Cecil witnesses the sexual abuse of his mother and the murder of his father at the hands of the plantation's white owner. Nevertheless, he learns how to be an effective house servant. Cecil's ability to avoid conflict and please people catches the eye of a White House staff recruiter, who hires him during the Eisenhower administration.
Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong focus largely on the family dynamics, yielding an odd assortment of results. The conflict between Cecil and his son Louis (David Oyelowo), who becomes a Martin Luther King devotee and then a Black Panther, is a filter for the civil-rights-era fight between assimilation and agitation. Cecil's wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), battles alcoholism, but this is just melodramatic fodder for an ongoing "you care more about your job than you care about us" quarrel. Whitaker's strong performance carries these scenes.
The pace of the narrative is a problem at times. It zips through some crucial historical moments, making the film feel a bit like Forest Whittaker Gump. And the casting choices for the presidents Cecil meets range from perfectly satisfactory (James Marsden as John F. Kennedy) to downright distracting (Robin Williams as Eisenhower).
Then there's the way the narrative builds to Barack Obama's election in 2008. It becomes the culmination of the entire civil rights movement. That's bound to drive some viewers crazy, even as Daniels and Strong convey how powerful this moment could be to black Americans born during the Jim Crow era, veterans of civil rights marches, and the many people who dreamed but never truly believed America could have an African American president during their lifetime. Perhaps Daniels could have nailed the story by focusing on this emotional arc of history rather than funky distractions and unusual visuals. But if that were the case, this probably wouldn't be called Lee Daniels' The Butler.