This juxtaposition of beliefs plays out perfectly in a striking sequence where Cecil is preparing for an elaborate White House dinner while Louis is leading a demonstration at the lunch counter of a segregated coffee shop. As father and son both attend to their respective duties, it ends up being one the film's most memorable and effective moments because the filmmakers actually trust the audience by showing rather than telling.

What’s also intriguing about The Butler is seeing how conflicted the various Commanders in Chief were about the Civil Rights Movement, even as Cecil quietly poured their coffee nearby. As in Lincoln, the viewer gets a ringside seat to how challenging it is to get game-changing legislation passed. In terms of performance, it's a fascinating proposition when such well-known actors are portraying esteemed historical figures. Not surprisingly, some end up faring better than others.

The boyishly handsome James Marsden (Enchanted) and the lovely Minka Kelly (The Kingdom) are a perfect match for President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy, right down to their distinctive accents. But casting John Cusack (The Raven) as Richard Nixon or Robin Williams (The Big Wedding) as Dwight Eisenhower induces head-scratching. Sure, it's probably a good thing the filmmakers chose to focus on the message rather than endless wigs and aging makeup, but one can’t help wondering if choosing unknowns—or axing their inclusion altogether since many don't serve much of a purpose in the larger story—would've been a better choice.

Those quibbles aside, The Butler is mostly successful in satisfying its multi-faceted objectives, and yes, it's quite the opposite of feel-good cinema. A thought-provoking reminder to current (and future) generations of where we've been as a nation, The Butler is effective in revealing how far we still need to go in treating humanity with the respect and dignity it deserves, which is something you'll likely think about long after the credits have rolled.

CAUTIONS: (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Social drinking, and in Gloria's case, way too much of it. Cigarette smoking.
  • Language/Profanity: Racial epithets are used throughout. The presidents routinely misuse God’s name by pairing it with da--. There's a handful of other profanities including sh--, bit--, da--, bast---, as- and a single f-bomb.
  • Sex/Nudity: Kissing. Innuendos and a crude joke about the male anatomy. References to "getting busy." A woman who's shown in her bra is straddling a man. One man is known for sleeping with other men's wives and makes a move on Gloria, who gives him a piece of her mind when refusing his advances.
  • Violence/Crime: A young boy's mother is routinely raped by his father's plantation boss (nothing is shown, but her cries are briefly heard). The same young boy sees his father die by gunfire when his dad dares to stand up for his mother. There are several scenes where African-Americans are mistreated for simply being black. Hot coffee is thrown at a young black man's face. People are trampled, spit at, punched, hit with heavy objects, burned and run over by cars. A freedom bus is set on fire, and there are multiple fatalities. The disturbing visuals of lynchings are shown. A hungry young man breaks a store window so he can eat the cake he sees inside. A couple of scenes involve Vietnam war footage.

Christa Banister is an author and full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the MeddlersBased in Dallas, Texas, she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blog.

Publication date: August 6, 2013