The Butler is like some bonkers Advent calendar of American history. Every time a White House window opens, a film star’s face pokes out. Not just Alan Rickman, rouged and toupee’d as the Hollywood president himself, Ronald Reagan. Robin Williams balds up as Eisenhower. John Cusack (wadded jowls, ski-slope nose) is Tricky Dick. In between come James Marsden’s pretty-boy JFK and Liev Schreiber’s fruity-vowelled LBJ. Later, that can’t be – is it? – Jane Fonda doing two minutes as Nancy Reagan.
Butlering the Advent calendar, opening doors if not windows, is Forest Whitaker as “Cecil Gaines”, a fictive synthesis inspired by actual Afro-American presidential butler Eugene Allen (White House 1950s to 1980s). For director Lee Daniels, of Precious and The Paperboy, subtlety, we know, is a foreign country. So Danny Strong’s tendentious screenplay gets all the trite italicisation it doesn’t need. The hero’s pride in his job wars with pained recognition of his needy brothers across the US. Each time he bears a tea tray into an Oval Office meeting, civil rights are the burning topic. (We are amazed the economy and foreign affairs survive as catered sectors of government attention.) The laws of dramatic contrast and conflict demand that Gaines’s son (David Oyelowo) is a firebrand liberal, polarising the family by campaigning for Martin Luther King before becoming a poster-boy Black Panther.
Just when you think the film can get no more predictable and platitudinous, along comes the Obama election. Tissues out: no dry eye left on Planet Racial Détente. If only history were like this: epochs of simple-minded epic struggle, followed by happy-ever-after closures.