Any movie that casts Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan certainly has a piquant sense of humor, but the prankishness of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” — so named after a title dispute with the MPAA — undermines the serious statements this star-spangled film is striving to make about race, class and politics. Along with missing the movie’s ever-migrating point, viewers may be forgiven for wondering whether “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” might have been titled “Lee Daniels’ Forrest Gump” — its hero challenged morally rather than mentally, but watching history in Gumpian fashion, as a series of cameos viewed through a slightly clueless daze.
Inspired by the true story of Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents during his tenure as a White House domestic and who was the subject of a 2008 Washington Post profile by Wil Haygood, the film stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, who grows up amid Southern cotton fields, witnesses the systematic abuse of his parents (Mariah Carey, David Banner) and learns that one goes along to get along. Cecil spends the movie carrying Jim Crow on his back and fear in his eye; that he personifies, both metaphorically and actually, the “good Negro” of the American Racist Dream is never much of a question. But even as Cecil lives his life slightly adjacent to history, building a heroic film around him requires herculean effort.