The Butler is modern American melodrama at its finest. A stirring fictionalization of the life of a White House butler, its inspiring tale masks a compelling story about the conflict between a father and son set against the Civil Rights Movement. This movie feels revolutionary for two reasons: Director Lee Daniels has fun with a genre that rarely even cracks a smile, and he does so with black actors cast in every major role.
Daniels uses a hemmed in, straightforward kind of chronology to depict the life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a character loosely adapted from Eugene Allen, a butler who worked in the White House for seven presidents, from 1952 to 1986. That fictionalization gives Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong a lot of wiggle room to consider the implications of three decades' worth of tumultuous race relations in America -- and to their credit, they face the nasty parts of history with their eyes wide open.
The Butler: Winfrey and Whitaker
(Photo by Anne Marie Fox)
So open, in fact, it's startling. The Butler reminds us that we're only a few decades removed from Emmett Till, from the Freedom Ride fire-bombing in Alabama, from Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, and from the riots and the mass police brutality and the rise of the Black Panthers. This movie is far from an exhaustive history of the Civil Rights Era -- nor should anyone expect it to be -- but it captures the fear and excitement of those times in a beautifully honest way.
What makes the movie sing, though, is the cast. Whitaker is remarkably muted in the lead role; his body language shifts as Gaines ages, yet the "face" he wears around white people never changes. (His performance calls to mind the maxim about successful black men in America. They can't simply be "half as black," they must also be "twice as good.") Alongside Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey is absolutely dazzling as Gloria Gaines, Cecil's wife. Although Winfrey hasn't acted in a feature film in 15 years, she steps into the role with an ease and humility that's downright astonishing. Even for Oprah, this is a feat.
With melodrama, of course, comes exaggeration. The Butler is no stranger to emotional highs and lows -- it seems to preface every major tragedy in Gaines's life with an entertaining vignette -- and at times, it can all seem a bit overwhelming. (The presidential stunt casting is tiring before it even begins, for instance.) Daniels must have recognized this. Just as the movie begins to feel unwieldy, he scales the story back down to a man and his son, the two poles of a family in a period of monumental change. It's hard to exaggerate how important it is to see a black director and a group of black actors tell this story -- especially in 2013, when the Civil Rights Movement can often feel more like history than a memory buried within our national conscience. The number of black stories being told by black storytellers in Hollywood is a woefully small. The Butler is merely a taste of what audiences are missing.
Leaving all the decorum, gravitas and relevance of The Butler far, far behind, another Aug. 16 release is Kick-Ass 2, a hyper-violent attempt to be a bawdier, bloodier successor to 2010's tremendously deranged Kick-Ass. Maybe you remember that one. You know, the superhero movie that gave a little girl a butterfly knife and set her loose on a gang of thugs? The one that used language no decent critic would even fathom quoting? The superhero movie that was so over-the-top it hit rock bottom? Kick-Ass 2 is supposed to be more outrageous than that -- and in few, fleeting ways, it almost is.
Writer-director Jeff Wadlow picks up shortly after the dust settles at the end of Kick-Ass. Our one-time hero, David Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), has retired from a life as the eponymous crime fighter and returned to high school. Mindy Macready (Chloë Grace Moretz), the foul-mouthed girl behind the Hit-Girl mask, is sneaking out of class every morning to protect New York City. Amateur superheroes with names like Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey) and Doctor Gravity (Donald Faison) patrol the streets. A spoiled, psychopath son of a dead mob boss (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is even plotting to become the world's first super-villain.
Want to know more? Me too. If you haven't seen the first movie -- or, like me, you don't remember much beyond its comic violence -- don't expect Kick-Ass 2 to wait for you to catch up. Wadlow's script sprints toward conflict without a care for theme, character or logic. It never does anything that doesn't excite. If I weren't so dazed by the pace, I'd admire it.
Let's be honest: This is a movie for people who laugh at jokes that involve gore, enjoy schlocky violence, and believe that profanity is an art. It's a superhero comic transmogrified into a B-movie, with just enough of a hint of self-mockery that it dodges the googly-eyed misogyny typically running rampant in both genres. I suspect Kick-Ass 2 looks and feels precisely the way it is supposed to -- nothing was accidental. It won't be everyone's cup of tea, but it will make a lot of teenage boys giggle.