Review: ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ puts Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey in the spotlight

You never know what you’re going to get from Lee Daniels, and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” continues the “Precious” filmmaker’s unpredictable streak.

Although it’s his first film to carry a possessory title (though not by choice), “The Butler” initially appears entirely out of step with Daniels’ oeuvre. A sweeping, inspirational, PG-13 rated historical saga from the man who gave us Mo’Nique’s unflinching sexual abuse monologue in “Precious,” Stephen Dorff wearing nothing but a condom in “Shadowboxer” and Nicole Kidman peeing on Zac Efron in “The Paperboy”?

It’s not quite as jarring a transition as John Waters going PG for “Hairspray,” but it’s close. And yet there’s something oddly appropriate about the film’s last minute title change. Just as no one would have made “Hairspray” like Waters, no one could’ve made “The Butler” like Lee Daniels.

The film is inspired by, and freely adapted from, the life of Eugene Allen — a black man who worked in the White House under eight successive presidential administrations. Allen’s remarkable story was the basis of Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” but Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong (“Game Change”) simply borrow a few crucial details from Haygood’s piece in creating their fictional protagonist Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker).

Cecil’s story spans the 1920s cotton fields of segregated Macon, Georgia to the 21st Century election of Barack Obama, providing a tidy overview of race relations in the U.S. over a single lifetime. But the surprise of this macro look at a turbulent period is how successfully micro Daniels and Strong get in telling the story. For all of its famous faces and historical touchstones, “The Butler” consistently avoids becoming a noble-minded checklist and instead emerges as a raw, specific portrait of a family.

That’s where it feels like Daniels makes all the difference. He’s just as attentive to the quieter character beats and casual conversations as he is the story’s epic scope (and you get the sense he may be more comfortable with the former). Despite the flashy hook, the real focus here isn’t Cecil’s work in the White House but his domestic life with strong-willed wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), budding activist son Louis (David Oyelowo) and younger son Charlie (Isaac White as a child and Elijah Kelley as a young man).

We’re so used to seeing civil rights stories filtered through the eyes of white characters, it’s easy to imagine a version of “The Butler” that simply chronicles Cecil’s relationships with a series of Presidents. Instead, the parade of old white men is just another part of this story, at no point threatening to overshadow what the movie is actually exploring. The various commander-in-chief performances (Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan) are mostly gimmicky and never convincing (though Rickman comes closest).

The subtle joke is they don’t really matter. Known for his outside the box casting choices, it’s reasonable to believe Daniels wants audiences to take the string of famous faces playing famous faces seriously (and it’s a minor detriment to the movie that we can’t). But by limiting their screen time to the level of extended cameos, he makes it clear where the film’s heart lies. “The Butler” isn’t a movie about white men changing history, it’s a movie about how Cecil and his family experience that history.

Whitaker’s carefully calibrated work in the title role probably won’t duplicate accolades he received for the flashier “The Last King of Scotland” but it’s a testament to his talents that he’s no less riveting in this interior, implosive turn. The way Cecil approaches the world is as much about self-preservation as it is about lack of opportunity, and rather than condescending to or sanctifying the character Whitaker embodies him as a man and not a symbol.

Essential to making that possible are the relationships he builds with Winfrey and Oyelowo, whose characters are granted sweeping journeys of their own. Although Gloria is rarely seen away from the family home, it’s clear that Daniels is passionate about giving her equal weight in the story. Winfrey responds with the film’s most quintessentially “Lee Daniels movie” performance. Like Mo’Nique in “Precious” and Kidman in “The Paperboy” before her, Winfrey surrenders herself completely to the character and one of the most famous women on the planet disappears into the skin of a moody alcoholic housewife.

Gloria smokes, drinks, raves about R&B legend Faye Adams, fools around with Terrence Howard as a smooth talking neighbor (although, despite earlier reports, there’s no real sex scene) and dances to “Soul Train” in a disco jumpsuit (Ruth E. Carter’s costumes are a perfect blend of kitsch and class throughout). She’s a force of nature as indomitable as Cecil is invisible. It’s Daniels’ distinct touch that transforms a scene of Gloria drunkenly smearing herself with lipstick while pressing Cecil for information about Jackie Kennedy’s shoe collection into one of the film’s most memorable moments.

At times it seems like the alternate title could’ve been “The Butler’s Wife.” If we didn’t already know Winfrey’s skill from her work in “The Color Purple” and “Beloved” this might be a revelation, instead it’s a powerful reinforcement of her capabilities. But together, Whitaker and Winfrey develop a portrait of a middle class marriage not often seen on the big screen, and practically never seen between a black couple.

It’s no wonder their union produces the socially conscious Louis, and Oyelowo (who worked with Daniels in “Paperboy”) credibly completes the family’s core triangle. Louis becomes the film’s entry point into the grass roots level of the burgeoning civil rights movement. Like Forrest Gump, he’s everywhere: participating in sit-ins, joining the Freedom Riders and variously aligning with James Lawson (Jesse Williams), Martin Luther King Jr. (Nelsan Ellis), Malcolm X and the Black Panther party, while wooing the similarly-minded Carol (Yaya Alafia).

Yet even here, Daniels keeps returning to family dynamics, as when Louis and Carol engage Cecil and Gloria in a dinner table debate over Sidney Poitier — a trailblazer or a white man’s fantasy of what a black man should be? To its credit, “The Butler” frequently raises provocative questions of black identity the typical Hollywood filmmaker would likely sidestep in favor of trite uplift.

There’s no shortage of quirks that mark “The Butler” as a Lee Daniels movie: Mariah Carey’s silent cameo as Cecil’s cotton picking mother, Schreiber’s Johnson barking orders on the commode before demanding  prune juice, Jane Fonda’s spirited scene as Nancy Reagan inviting Cecil to a state dinner (a detail taken from real life), Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. playing Cecil’s White House colleagues, Fantasia Barrino on the soundtrack. But it’s the clear-eyed realization of family life that should make Daniels proud he gets his name above the title.