Though the generation-gap clashes between father and son over how best to confront institutional prejudice — and over Sidney Poitier's acting abilities — are another of the film's strong points, the plotting here becomes too contrived to be effective.
"The Butler" turns poor Louis into a kind of African American Zelig, present at every key civil rights era turning point. That's Louis sitting in at a Woolworth's lunch counter, getting fire-bombed on a Freedom Rider bus, getting assaulted by a fire hose in Birmingham, being with Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis just before he died, donning a beret and becoming a Black Panther as Carol's hair morphs into an Angela Davis afro.
It's not that all this stuff didn't happen (see Stanley Nelson's excellent Emmy-winning doc "Freedom Riders" to get the full story), but it strains credulity to have it all happen to one person, and all in the context of a strained father-son relationship.
Daniels' pulp instincts do lead to vivid sequences such as the intercutting of a White House dinner with that Woolworth sit-in, but this is one significant film where less would have been a whole lot more.
'Lee Daniels' The Butler'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes
Playing: In general release