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Lee Daniels' The Butler


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'The Butler' serves up a star studded lineup
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies

Whatever you want to say about "Lee Daniels' The Butler," you certainly can't fault it for lack of ambition. Not content with being one movie over the course of two hours, it tries to be three: a sweeping historical drama of social change in post-World War II America, a moving story of father-and-son estrangement and potential reconciliation, and the "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" of race relations films.

In this fact-based life story of an African-American White House butler (adapted significantly enough by screenwriter Danny Strong that the real name of the man has been changed from Eugene Allen to Cecil Gaines), the grand parade of A-list celeb cameos gets the upper hand right away.  In a cotton field in the 1920s Southland, a nearly unrecognizable Mariah Carey is taken to the woodshed by sneering Alex Pettyfer, who then puts a bullet in the head of the fellow who protests, all watched over by a semi-doddering Vanessa Redgrave, who then informs young Cecil that he'll be working in the house from thereon.

Bing: More about Forest Whitaker | More on Oprah Winfrey

The actual phrase her character uses is "house n----r," and the most interesting scenes in "The Butler" have to do with the ways that African-Americans adapted to service roles in the Depression era economy in the South, the boom years up North in the Eisenhower era, -- during which hotel barman Cecil is summoned to the White House -- and the ostensible Black Power movement in which the African-American who worked such jobs was repeatedly mocked by younger people as an "Uncle Tom"-- not just by fellow African-Americans, but by smart-mouthed white kids as well. The movie's at its most sure-footed and fascinating in scenes where the African-American characters assess their situations among themselves. As when Clarence Williams III advises the now-adult Cecil (Forest Whitaker) on how to anticipate the desires of a Southern bar's clientele or in-the-kitchen bull sessions between Gaines and the fellow butlers, portrayed, quite well, by Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz (yes, you read that correctly).

These scenes have a credibility and immediacy that makes the sweep-of-history-witnessed-by-fabled-white-political-leaders portion of the movie seem almost beside the point. Each of the presidents portrayed (Eisenhower by Robin Williams, in an oddly effeminate reading; Kennedy by James Marsden, the most convincing of the lot; Johnson by Liev Schreiber in a negative light that could cause disapproving biographer Robert Caro to raise an eyebrow, Nixon by a beady-eyed John Cusack, and a bizarro-world Reagan essayed by Alan Rickman) is seen grappling with some sort of civil rights issue, sometimes heroically but mostly with timidity. This is juxtaposed with the growth of Gaines' eldest son, Louis (who, speaking of heroic, not to say possibly foolhardy, is portrayed by 36-year-old David Oyelowo from high school age to adulthood), a smart firebrand who gets involved with the civil rights movement from the Freedom Riders to the Black Panthers and beyond. Cross-cutting between a state dinner at which Cecil is serving, and a lunch-counter passive-resistance protest Louis participates in, makes a powerful dramatic point even if the analogy it's drawing is a weirdly muddled one.

While Whitaker and Oyelowo stay on the straight and narrow path of stalwart integrity with their characterizations, Oprah Winfrey, returning to acting after a long hiatus doing god knows what, has fun going here, there, and everywhere in the role of Cecil's often-troubled wife. There are hints of the old Lee Daniels weirdness (the titular director also made last year's notoriously and perversely overheated "The Paperboy") when Kennedy takes over the White House and Winfrey channels '70s Liz Taylor, indolently smoking and slurring words as her character drunkenly speculates on the number of shoes Jackie Kennedy owns. In a similar vein, Jane Fonda's turn as Nancy Reagan is pretty cheeky, but also contributes to a distraction factor that, by the film's end, potentially diminishes the emotional pull everyone involved in the movie clearly wants it to have. Then again, I am perhaps overestimating the extent to which contemporary audiences are invested in coherent, consistent adherence to certain dramatic unities/conventions. For myself, I found the hints of a smarter, more considered movie kind of frustrating whenever "Lee Daniels' The Butler" turned into a spot-the-star exercise.

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Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at He lives in Brooklyn.

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