Every time a character in The Butler goes on a trip, somebody offers him a ham sandwich. Director Lee Daniels does much the same for the viewer—in every single scene.
It isn't hard to see why Daniels wanted to tell this story, which is based (very) loosely on truth. It's kind of irresistible: A black White House butler, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker, having lost so much weight he looks a bit like Mr. Toad), serves closely with every U.S. president during the civil rights era and lives to be invited back to the White House by Barack Obama. The black man in the White House proceeds from invisibly serving power to sitting in it.
But the writer of The Paperboy isn't known for subtlety, and he treats 50 years of U.S. history with as much depth as a Forrest Gump montage, although the politics here are triumphally progressive. As a movie, The Butler is a blundering oaf with good intentions, effusively sentimental but cursed with hands made of mutton.
Cecil is outfitted with a fictional son (David Oyewolo) who acts as troubled proxy for black civil rights protesters from the Freedom Riders to the Black Panther Party. While the father changes the hearts and minds of presidents through quiet dignity, the son pals up with both MLK and Bobby Seale. Seeing Cecil's kid on TV apparently made both RFK and JFK commit to civil rights. A whiff of Cecil made Reagan falter on apartheid policy.
A lot of the real fun is the casting, which ranges from expected—Oprah Winfrey as Cecil's earthy and soulful wife—to entirely ludicrous: a sniveling Robin Williams as Eisenhower, an outmatched Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy. The best joke in the movie is the casting of "Hanoi Jane" Fonda as Nancy Reagan.
But there is a lovely bit of insight in a scene that shows the silent forbearance of black students harassed (and eventually beaten) for sitting in a cafe's white section; this is intercut not only with their own desensitization training, but with the silence of the black White House staff. The parallel places Cecil and Louis on the same side of history—it's one of the most effective sequences in the film.
Such moments are rare, however. The film's full title is Lee Daniels' The Butler, and the subject of the movie doesn't matter, because Lee Daniels has decided that Lee Daniels is going to make you cry, and he's going to hit you over the head until you do.
Critic's Grade: D
SEE IT: Lee Daniels' The Butler is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Eastport, Division, Lloyd Center, St. Johns Twin.