Lee Daniels’s most commercial film to date is loosely based on the experience of Eugene Allen (1919-2010), a poor African-American who worked his way up the ladder to become head butler at the White House. It’s structured like a conventional Hollywood biopic, though Daniels consistently defamiliarizes the form with weird, crass, and nakedly sincere moments, sometimes deploying all three within the same scene. The tone swerves from horrific (the depictions of lynchings and other racially motivated violence) to sentimental (the relationship between the apolitical title character and his activist son) to broadly comic (the burlesque characterizations of Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and Nancy Reagan), which feels oddly appropriate for a film about someone constantly struggling to assimilate into an unstable political environment. The movie’s a mess, but a unique and provocative one. The all-star cast includes Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., and John Cusack as Nixon.
PG-13 • 2 hours 12 min • 2013