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.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'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