With his last film, The Paperboy, director Lee Daniels (Precious) achieved a kind of wonderful awfulness. At its most perverse, that weird Southern Gothic melodrama was bad, yet the sheer go-for-broke tastelessness of the thing was somehow admirable.
The awfulness asserts itself only sparingly in Daniels' more-grounded drama The Butler. It is mostly admirable in the way it provocatively pinballs between the private life of a black servant and the Washington power players whom he serves.
Forest Whitaker maintains his dignity as Cecil Gaines, a humble sharecropper's son who, as a boy, witnessed his father's murder at the hands of a cotton-field overseer under conditions no better than slavery.
Cecil leaves his half-mad mom (Carey) and escapes that grim existence to move north. Employing a talent to seem invisible when he's in a room, he works his way into the White House as a butler.
He first gains entrance to the presidential inner sanctum during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams) at a time when the civil rights movement begins to cause ripples in the corridors of power.
Cecil bears silent witness to the transactions of the upper echelons, but prefers to give his voice at home with his supportive but troubled wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and his two sons.
But as his boys come of age in the '60s, Cecil's two worlds begin to ping off one another. Cecil's eldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), goes to college and is drawn into the movement, protesting segregation and participating in the exploits of the Freedom Riders. His other son, Charlie (Elijah Kelley), goes to Vietnam.
Hence, in the administrations of John F. Kennedy (James Marsden is actually the best cast of the presidents) and Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber), Cecil maintains his stoic silence, even as he has a growing personal stake in the Oval Office debates on how best to manage issues at home and abroad.
The movie skips over the administrations of Nixon, Ford and Carter, although John Cusack gets a scene to offer up a sweaty, sleazy Nixon, Eisenhower's vice-president, feeling out Cecil and two of his black co-workers (Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz) on how best to court the black vote.
By the end of his career, Cecil actually enjoys a kind of bond with Ronald Reagan (a game but miscast Alan Rickman) and his wife Nancy (Jane Fonda), but it is a relationship that is, it is suggested, limited not by their respective offices, but by Reagan's baffling support of the South African policy of apartheid.
Inspired by the experiences of real-life White House butler Eugene Allen and scripted by Danny Strong (Game Change), The Butler suffers a crippling imbalance: Daniels is evidently more comfortable in the realm of seamy melodrama than historic docudrama.
This is a particular irritant when it comes to Schreiber's LBJ, a potentially fascinating study in contrasts. A vulgarian given to holding meetings while on the toilet and frequent employment of the N-word, he was also deeply revulsed by the televised spectacle of human rights abuses in Alabama and was moved to enact some of the most important civil rights legislation of the 20th century, at considerable cost to the Democratic Party.
Instead of giving Johnson more than a couple of minutes of screen time, Daniels would rather devote time to a narrative dead end, say, Gloria's affair with a neighbour (Terrence Howard), apparently because it gives Winfrey more screen time.
That's not entirely a bad thing. Winfrey hasn't acted in more than a decade, and she does charm the camera. And Whitaker, who convincingly ages over some seven decades, holds up his end with a performance of grace and gravitas, which sees us through to the movie's inspirational conclusion. He deserves a better movie.