To make a good movie, you must start with a compelling story -- and that describes Danny Strong's "Forrest Gump"-like adaptation of Wil Haygood's 2008 "Washington Post" article about Eugene Allen, the White House steward who had served eight U.S. presidents. Soft-spoken Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is an engaging amalgamation of several butlers who worked at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
As a sharecropping youngster in Macon, Ga., Gaines saw his mother (Mariah Carey) raped and father (David Banner) shot. He was subsequently trained as a domestic servant by the cotton plantation's elderly matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave), who observed: "The room should feel empty when you're in it."
Leaving the rigidly segregated South, Gaines perfected his dignified, white-gloved skills at posh hotels until he was recruited to join the prestigious White House staff. The day he was hired, gentle, unassuming Gaines was told: "We have no tolerance for politics at the White House." As a silent, firsthand witness to history, he dutifully served each first family from 1957 to 1986. His steadfast devotion infuriated his frustrated, alcoholic wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and alienated his rebellious elder son (David Oyelowo), who joined the Civil Rights Movement, became a Freedom Rider, then a Black Panther, while his younger son was killed in Vietnam. Gaines' intergenerational, domestic conflict parallels African-Americans' turbulent struggle for equality during the 20th century.
Director Lee Daniels ("Precious," "The Paperboy") astutely cast savvy Whitaker as the resilient, richly-nuanced, Oscar-contending lead, paired with powerful Winfrey. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz score as Gaines' co-workers, as does Terrence Howard as a nefarious neighbor. Jane Fonda's Nancy Reagan cameo is superb, but Robin Williams, John Cusack, Liev Schreiber and Alan Rickman fare less well as Eisenhower, Nixon, Johnson and Reagan, while James Marsden and Minka Kelly impersonate the Kennedys. Problem is: famous faces can be distracting.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Lee Daniels' The Butler" is an ambitious, affecting 9, a challenging, haunting, historical epic, hoping to follow the success of the similar, late-summer 2011 release "The Help."