This is a kind of ‘Forrest Gump’ with a focus on the Civil Rights Movement. It’s the story of segregation slowly, if incompletely, becoming integration – told through the story of one remarkable man – butler to eight US presidents. Although this is “inspired” by a true story, the thing most lacking here is “inspiration” – in the casting, in the writing, in the direction, in telling the story. Start with the casting. Forest Whitaker plays the lead character as a non-entity. He is rigid, unsmiling, almost robotic in too many scenes. We never see real intelligence in his eyes, genuine warmth in his manner, a sense of humanity beneath his carefully pressed tuxedo. And casting Oprah Winfrey as his always-boozing, always-smoking wife, Gloria, is equally a mistake.
She is too much a public figure to disappear into the role. Consider the writing. It’s uneven at best. There are moments that will cause you to laugh out loud, that will bring a tear to your eye, that will leave you embarrassed to call yourself human. But those moments are few because this movie just keeps jumping forward, trying to be sure it covers every key moment in the struggle for civil rights. And finally, let’s talk about direction. This was directed by Lee Daniels, who as a Black man, seemed to have tasked himself with conveying the whole Black experience. As a result, he’s made this more ‘important’ than ‘entertaining,’ more ‘instructive’ than it is ‘interesting.’ But still, this is a film where you will meet some real heroes who stood up for what they believed in, and who changed lives – theirs and ours – for the better. And when you have a chance to meet heroes like that, you should take it.