I have been maligning Lee Daniels' The Butler as a movie without a central storyline, but my powers of prophecy were weak: its story is the whole civil rights movement, from beginning lunch counters to South African apartheid and the Reagan administration.
Unfortunately, I have been right about the problem of grounding the story in the experiences of a man who served as butler to the White House during the entire period and who was never active in any of the movement's action.
Lee Daniels' The Butler doesn't even do much to tell that man's story, because it is never clear exactly how he feels about the whole thing. Even when he appears at a demonstration, it isn't clear whether he is motivated by loyalty to his job, or his president, or his family or a combination of all three. When he throws his son out of the house, we can't tell whether he is responding to an insult to the president or one to himself. Not even Forest Whitaker's acting can overcome the script.
Whitaker's children, however, represent the various stages of the movement clearly, and Oprah Winfrey is good as the wife and mother who is supposedly concerned mainly with loyalty to her man. There may even be some advantage in Whitaker's representing the "outside observer" point of view some of us represent-- we weren't freedom riders either, and to some extent Lee Daniels' The Butler is closer to our own experience than a more intimate history would be.
It's worth seeing as a sort of summary outline of a history we don't remember as well as we should. But it isn't much of a story in itself.