Civil rights history through the butler’s eyes

Robin Williams as President Eisenhower? Even those inclined to root for “The Butler” might feel their goodwill wobbling as this historical saga hits its first casting iceberg.

In fact, this ambitious film is littered with potential disasters, from its long timespan to its hot-button subject matter to its stunt casting. The wonder is that “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” — yeah, the full title is another issue — stays on course as well as it does.

If it doesn’t really transcend its TV-movie trappings, “The Butler” does hit its share of emotional targets. Even some of the showier cameos by famous actors produce effective moments.

The center of the film is held down by Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker, in a fictionalized role inspired by an actual White House butler who served presidents for more than 30 years. Whitaker’s character is called Cecil Gaines; he loses his sharecropper father at a young age and goes into a life of domestic service, moving up from hotel work to a job in the White House in the early 1950s.

As the decades tick by and various presidents wrestle with issues of civil rights in the U.S., Cecil maintains the dignified, don’t-rock-the-boat demeanor he learned from his elders. This rubs his eldest son (David Oyelowo) the wrong way, especially as the ’60s usher in a new era of protest.

Director Lee Daniels — on his best behavior here after the outrageous “Paperboy” — and screenwriter Danny Strong present those opposing arguments, with particular emphasis on not second-guessing Cecil and his practical approach to survival. Some of the domestic scenes are mildly distracting if only for the presence of Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s wife — but it should be said that Oprah gives a nicely detailed, true-in-the-bone performance (her first big feature role since “Beloved” in 1998).

Elsewhere, while Robin Williams is a jarring note, we get rather intriguing performances by John Cusack as Richard Nixon (especially in a well-written scene involving Vice President Nixon slinking into the White House kitchen to drum up support for his 1960 campaign) and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan.

Liev Schreiber stomps around as Lyndon Johnson and James Marsden lays on the toothy smile as John Kennedy.

The use of guest stars only highlights the TV-like approach to history, and somehow reminds us that we’re not watching a movie, we’re watching something that’s good for us.

The civil-rights history recounted in “The Butler” is indeed stirring, and that lesson gets through even with the bumps in the storytelling — even with Robin Williams as Ike.

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (2½ stars)

This sincere effort to recount U.S. civil-rights history through the character of a long-serving White House butler (Forest Whitaker) has its share of storytelling bumps, although the lesson does get through. The casting (Oprah Winfrey as the butler’s wife, John Cusack as Richard Nixon) adds to the sense of a TV series with guest stars, but eventually the generational conflict takes center stage and wins out.

Rating: PG-13, for subject matter

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre, Everett Stadium, Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood, Sunday, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade.

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