The Butler is an unashamedly schmaltzy, episodic trawl through African-American history. It takes us from the cotton fields in the deep south of the 1920s to Barack Obama’s inauguration as President.
Along the way, the screenplay dutifully ticks off the big events and personalities from the point of view of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a butler who serves at the White House between 1957 and 1986.
Cecil’s family has been the victim of extreme racist violence and his strategy for advancement is to be unobtrusive and deferential. “I am working for the white man to make things better for us,” is his attitude. His firebrand son Louis (David Oyelowo) deplores his passive approach but the argument is made that Cecil is “being subversive without even knowing it”.
The film-makers take a tableau approach to storytelling, whisking us from one melodramatic set-piece to the next and using Cecil’s voice-over to bridge the gaps. The cast is packed with big-name actors in cameos. Jane Fonda is a credible Nancy Reagan, John Cusack a jowly and cynical Richard Nixon. Alan Rickman captures Ronald Reagan’s folksy quality even if he doesn’t look anything like the character he is playing.
Oprah Winfrey has a more substantial role as Cecil’s wife, Gloria, left on her own to bring up the kids as he works long hours. At times, The Butler seems like a celebrity-studded TV movie but it is effective and direct as social history and often moving. The impressive Whitaker plays Cecil with the same sense of suppressed emotion that Anthony Hopkins brought to his role as a butler in The Remains of the Day.