David Oyelowo as his son and Oprah Winfrey as his wife also turn in strong performances in a story of politics and race relations as seen through the very different eyes of one family.
While the butler sees the civil rights movement unfold from inside the White House, his son is anti-establishment, sometimes causing friction, even over Sidney Poitier.
The film has some intense and very dramatic moments. Director Lee Daniels smartly adds in some humor to allow us to breathe. Cuba Gooding Jr. helps out on that front.
It's also great to see some terrific actors playing our presidents, from Eisenhower through Reagan. And Jane Fonda nails it as first lady Nancy Reagan.
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" is sometimes poignant, often powerful, and it's a fascinating portrait of a family living through some of the most tumultuous times in modern American history.