Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Kick-Ass 2

Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey confront a racist past and Hit-Girl suits up again.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a guided tour through the U.S. civil-rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s and beyond. The movie is a procession of crucial events – from sit-ins and Freedom Riders to the later Black Power and anti-apartheid ferment – that neatly concludes with the election of the country’s first black president. The picture is contrived (how could it not be?), factually dubious and sometimes heart-wringing to the point of weepiness. But the story is nevertheless stirring, and most of the actors, even in small roles, give unusually fine performances. 

The movie is based rather loosely on the life of Eugene Allen, who worked as a White House butler (mainly) for 34 years, serving and silver-polishing under eight presidents, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. In the interest of telling a larger story, director Daniels – whose name had to be bolted onto the title after a petty copyright claim by Warner Bros. – has taken sufficient liberties with Allen’s tale to require changing the name of the movie’s protagonist to Cecil Gaines. The script, by Danny Strong (who wrote the TV movie Game Change), introduces Cecil at age seven, in 1926, working in a Georgia cotton field with his father (David Banner) and mother (Mariah Carey, who was so unexpectedly good in Daniels’ 2009 Precious). In a garishly jolting scene, the son of the white plantation owner drags Cecil’s mother away from the field and rapes her, then shoots his father dead just for looking as if he might object. The murderer’s mother (Vanessa Redgrave) takes an approximation of pity on the boy and brings him into the family mansion. “You’ll make a good house nigger,” she tells him.

Since Eugene Allen was born and raised in Virginia, not farther south in Georgia, and since there’s no mention of this horrific incident in Wil Haygood’s The Butler: A Witness to History – a book-length expansion of the Washington Post article that inspired the movie – it seems to be a complete invention. Possibly it was intended to convey a larger historical truth about black American experience. It’s still a violation of even the most expansive conventions of biographical filmmaking, however much that might matter.

Venturing out into the world, Cecil (now played by Forest Whitaker) finds work as a domestic servant. While employed at a hotel in Washington, D.C. he is summoned for a job interview by Freddie Fallows (a memorable Colman Domingo), the head butler at the White House. Fallows is impressed by Cecil’s knowledge of French cognac and his professed lack of interest in politics. Hiring him, he warns Cecil, “You hear nothing, you see nothing – you only serve.”  

The movie is unswervingly schematic. Cecil marries a woman named Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and they have two sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley). From early on we see Louis chafing under the white racial oppression from which his father averts his eyes, and their opposing perspectives form a tidy counterpoint throughout the movie. As Cecil moves around the White House with his white gloves and practiced smile, we see him observing President Eisenhower as he orders the forced integration of a Little Rock high school, and President Kennedy as he explodes in fury at televised scenes of anti-integration rioting in Oxford, Mississippi. In another scene unmentioned in Haygood’s book, we also see Cecil tending to Lyndon Johnson – soon to sign the epochal 1964 Civil Rights Act – as he confers with aides while seated on a toilet. 

Each of these narrative episodes is balanced against scenes from the activist life of young Louis Gaines, who is swept up in his own generation’s mounting fury at racial injustice. Louis is there at the 1960 lunchcounter sit-in inGreensboro, North Carolina (a scene of startling violence), and he’s there again the following year when a Freedom Rider bus is attacked by the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. Come 1968, we find him conveniently situated in a Memphis motel room talking to Martin Luther King, Jr. (Nelsan Ellis), shortly before his assassination on the motel balcony. (Here, in a resourceful bit of historical illumination, Daniels has the great civil-rights leader explain that domestic workers like Louis’ father have played a valuable role in transforming white perceptions of black Americans.) Before long, as times grow darker, Louis is drawn into the orbit of the more violent Black Panthers, along with his girlfriend, Carol (an icily magnetic Yaya Alafia).

This structure has a plodding predictability, but the actors surmount it. True, the various presidents (and their wives) are a mixed proposition. Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda come off best, portraying Ronald and Nancy Reagan with unexpected flair (and without a whisper of liberal condescension). James Marsden and Minka Kelly are at least evocative as John and Jackie Kennedy; Liev Schreiber is better than might be expected as Lyndon Johnson; and while John Cusack bears no resemblance to Richard Nixon, he does manage to suggest the great dissimulator’s sweaty resentment. But Robin Williams was a bizarre choice to play Dwight D. Eisenhower – if he could be said to look like president at all, it would be Eisenhower’s predecessor, Harry Truman (who, like Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, plays no part in the film).    

But the presidents are passing figures, and the key actors easily overshadow them. Whitaker has the most challenging role. As Cecil Gaines, he can do little more than observe the famous events going on around him. But his careful restraint gathers power as the story progresses – he movingly conveys Cecil’s impregnable dignity, and he brings a warm glow to the many scenes set in the Gaines household. Oprah Winfrey, in her first screen role in 15 years, is vividly prickly as Cecil’s wife, a woman sliding into alcoholism and an extramarital affair (with a boozy Terrence Howard). And David Oyelowo gives a finely shaded performance as Louis Gaines, a young man torn between righteous idealism and love for his disapproving father. Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. are also in attendance, offering understated support as two of Cecil’s fellow White House servants.

The Butler is a messy film; it shouldn’t really work, but it does - its emotional power can’t be dismissed. In depicting the long struggle for black liberation, however unsurprisingly, it tells a great American story.   

Kick-Ass 2

Taking up where the surprise hit Kick-Ass left off three years ago, this exercise in trash-talking teenage ultra-violence pushes many of the same buttons as its predecessor. There’s an avalanche of savage action, staged for maximum in-your-face impact, but the intended shocks aren’t quite as shocking as they were the first time around. Which is not to say the movie isn’t a lot of fun, for the most part. It definitely is.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson is back as Dave Lizewski, doing secret superhero business as Kick-Ass; and Chloë Grace Moretz is once again in on hand as Mindy Macready, donning her purple wig and black mask to steal scenes as his partner, Hit-Girl. Unfortunately, since Mindy’s crime-fighting father Big Daddy was killed in the first film, she’s now in the care of a guardian (Morris Chestnut) who’s demanding that his 15-year-old ward give up her butt-whumping sideline and buckle down in high school. This plot element has the unfortunate effect of grounding Hit-Girl for much the early part of the movie as it limply explores her budding erotic urges and involves her with a group of snooty high-school beauties in a subplot that should be a lot funnier than it actually is.

In Mindy’s absence, Dave recruits a new partner who calls himself Dr. Gravity (Donald Faison), and soon he has a whole crew of oddly attired amateur crime-fighters by his side, chief among them a grinning lunatic who calls himself Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey). Very quickly they’re targeted for termination by Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who set himself up as the supervillain Red Mist in the first film, but now, togged out in his late mom’s flashy S&M gear, has adopted a gratuitous new handle: The Motherfucker. He has also assembled his own crew of evildoers, among them Mother Russia, a towering peroxide blonde with a body like a truck and a face like a shovel.

As the Kick-Ass team roams about New York knocking heads, there’s quite a bit of meta-enjoyment in watchingCarrey – who primly disavowed the movie’s violence just prior to its release - wielding a bloody bat withsuch cackling enthusiasm. He brings a fierce energy to the picture, and yet…the violence was a surprise?  

There are some epic smackdowns here, as you’d expect, especially after Hit-Girl rejoins the fray. (Having pounded one bad guy into submission, she tells him, “If I catch you again, shitburger, I’m gonna go Saudi Arabia on you.”) The scene in which she does battle with a gang of thugs from atop a speeding van is a spectacular stunt workout. Director Jeff Wadlow, stepping in for Matthew Vaughn (now one of this film’s producers), may have a more humane approach to the characters, but he’s no slouch at smash-kick-andkill, which is of course good news.

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  • ||

    The Butler is a messy film; it shouldn’t really work, but it does - its emotional power can’t be dismissed.

    So basically if Forrest Gump had a black son he'd be a butler?

  • April06||

    Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this - 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, http://www.max47.com

  • Steve G||

    Forest Whitaker is a distracting actor to watch, at least to this shallow viewer. I'm always staring at that lazy eye.

    Oh and as for Jim Carrey: fuck Jim Carrey

  • ||

    The lazy eye works good in The Last King of Scotland though.

  • Mint Berry Crunch||

    Jim Carrey can totally redeem himself if Dumb and Dumber To (yes, that's how they're spelling it) comes close to the brilliance of the original.

  • Agammamon||

    It won't.

  • ThatSkepticGuy||

    Pretty sure D&D2; is dead in the water.

  • ThatSkepticGuy||

    ^Minus the semicolon.

  • Don Mynack||

    "In a garishly jolting scene, the son of the white plantation owner drags Cecil’s mother away from the field and rapes her, then shoots his father dead just for looking as if he might object. The murderer’s mother (Vanessa Redgrave) takes an approximation of pity on the boy and brings him into the family mansion. “You’ll make a good house nigger,” she tells him."

    Which is why I have no interest in seeing this piece of garbage. People in Hollywood are probably dumb enough to think this actually occurred, however, so let the Oscar Sweep begin!!!!

  • Floridian||

    I have no interest because I caught part of an interview where the director claimed a white man (Zimmerman) can still kill a black boy in America and face no consequences. Like there was no trial and Zimmerman was a white supremacist. No thanks.

  • ||

    Same here. Next. Now Oprah's vapid stupidity about Zimmerman makes sense. She made a race movie.

  • lap83||

    Yeah, no consequences at all. Going into hiding is nothing, liberals do that every time Obama has a new scandal or drones a small child. What's the big deal?

  • Mint Berry Crunch||

    ...a group of snooty high-school beauties in a subplot that should be a lot funnier than it actually is.

    Fuck me gently with a chainsaw!

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Ooh, I think you just gave Roberta Flack an idea for a new song.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    "The script...introduces Cecil at age seven, in 1926, working in a Georgia cotton field with his father (David Banner)"

    You know, if you have David Banner working in your cotton field, try not to rape his wife...you wouldn't like Banner when he's angry.

  • LarryA||

    Why? Is he Bruce Banner's brother or something?

  • ThatSkepticGuy||

    He's David Bruce Banner in the 70's TV show, cuz they thought Bruce was too gay a firts name or something.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Why not combine these two movies? By night, the White House Butler is the Ebony Avenger, wreaking havoc on the enemies of the United States.

    "I see that Khruschev has retired."

    "Yeah, boss, I hear he got retired real good."

    "And I notice that Trujillo and Che Guevara aren't around any more."

    "Well, boss, let's just say they ate something that didn't agree with them - like lead."

    "And the Klan hasn't been giving me trouble lately."

    "I hear they trouble washing their blood out of their robes, boss."

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    *have* trouble

  • Jaybirdmojo||

    The original Kick-Ass movie had some significant deviations from the comic book (specifically, the movie blunted much of Mark Millar's contempt for his audience).

    Does Kick-Ass 2 have a similar understanding or do they include such things as the violent sexual assaults?

  • GelidusV||

    It similarly blunts the contempt you mentioned. I was surprised how close they could follow the comic while still cutting out all the horrible crap Millar threw in to offend people. There is no murder of a bus full of children. Other scenes are referenced but not performed in a way that seems to ask, "Did you really think that was a good idea, Mark?"

    I liked it a lot more than the comic.

  • JW||

    These two movies would be much better if they were combined into one.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    See above.

  • JW||

    Brevity, fool.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Matt. 5:22

  • Jon Lester||

    I get that Hollywood biopics are polished and somewhat adapted, because actual historic conversations and sequences of events were likely rather mundane, but I really hate complete fabrications, and that's what's keeping me from seeing "Fruitvale Station."

    And why does the Jim Crow stereotype always have to be centered in Georgia? Considering where the nation's capital is, you could argue that Virginia residents have inflicted far more harm, upon a much greater number of people, than those from any other state.

  • Brandon||

    Always centered in Georgia? The Help, Ghosts of Mississippi, Mississippi Burning... I mean, no question Georgia is a backward, racist shithole, but "Always" is a bit too strong.

  • Libertarius||

    Your blue states are the bankrupt, corrupt and backwards shitholes, asswipe.

  • OldMexican||

    The picture is contrived (how could it not be?), factually dubious and sometimes heart-wringing to the point of weepiness.


    So it's propaganda. Got it. Thank you for the heads-up, Kurt! I owe you one. I'm off to see Jobs tonight.

    I wasn't going to see The Butler after even Forest Whitaker (an actor I had the highest regard for) repeated Oprah's false comparison between the Emmet Till case and the shooting death of hoodlum scumbag Trayvon Martin.

  • Juice||

    I'm off to see Jobs tonight.

    Wow. You're actually going to shell out $12 and sit your ass in a seat to watch that?

  • ashdex||

    So basically it's a Roots sequel

  • Faceless Commenter||

    Yikes, you haven't read the review here of Jobs? A hagiography of a blood-drinking capitalist (yay!) who did his all to elect Democrat dictators (groan).

  • OldMexican||

    [...]it [the particular event depicted in the movie] seems to be a complete invention. Possibly it was intended to convey a larger historical truth about black American experience.


    So it IS propaganda. Reliance on falsehoods and lies to "convey a larger historical 'truth' " is the operating definition of propaganda.

    You don't have to continue selling it to me, Kurt. I got it the first time. Thank you for the heads-up.

  • OldMexican||

    The Butler is a messy film; it shouldn't really work, but it does - its emotional power can't be dismissed. In depicting the long struggle for black liberation, however unsurprisingly, it tells a great American story.


    Since I am not an American and thus enjoy the benefit of not being encumbered by historical baggage like most Americans are (either by choice or by force), nor are my judgment and moral principles fogged by white guilt, I can judge the movie for what it seems to me at first glance: a piece of propaganda.

    If this were a fictional story purported to illustrate the long struggle for civil rights for blacks, it would be a different thing; you would know the events depicted are fictional. In this case, it is clear that the actual events this person lived are not compelling enough or fit the liberal narrative of an irremediably racist white America, so the story tellers resort to frank agitprop, to make shit up.

  • Gladstone||

    The Butler is a messy film; it shouldn’t really work, but it does - its emotional power can’t be dismissed. In depicting the long struggle for black liberation, however unsurprisingly, it tells a great American story.

    So basically it is good despite everything because it is about racism.

  • HenryC||

    Forest is an excellent actor. It does not mean I want to see the movie. I actually know a black man that worked in the Senate cafeteria/restaurant during that period. He has the signed pictures of eight President. I don't think I will see the movie. Knowing him and talking to him is enough.

  • Jon Lester||

    I think you have a great opportunity to make an honest documentary there.

  • CE||

    The scene in which she does battle with a gang of thugs from atop a speeding van is a spectacular stunt workout.

    But nothing to compare to the epic on-horseback-on-parallel-trains gunfight between the Lone Ranger and Butch Cavendish, all while the William Tell Overture blares, in this summers' most unfairly maligned film, The Lone Ranger.

  • Almanian!||

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    We'll see what the judges think after this afternoon's medley contest.

    http://www.theworlds.co.uk/pro.....-Live.aspx

  • www.iraqiae.com||

  • صبايا العراق||

    Excellent

  • WeisSaul||

    I think the portrayal of Reagan was kind (though I can't help but find it ironic that Jane Fonda was playing Nancy Reagan) though I don't think they said enough about why Reagan was vetoing sanctions on South Africa. It would have just taken one sentence, "We can't risk losing an ally against the Soviets", to make him go from appearing uncaring to suffering from inner turmoil (though the film did make up for it later with Reagan talking about his concern that he would be on the wrong side of history regarding civil rights). Still, the last mention of Reagan in the film.

    The part with LBJ with his pants down was hilarious.

    Nixon was pretty intimidating and was quite well portrayed.

    I think the writers missed out on the opportunity for two Georgians (Jimmy and Cecil) to be interacting in the White House.

  • Michele Lavigne||

    I liked both the movies though the later was little extra violent and I think it should not be preferred for children, else the movie is great and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • Solidus||

    Thanks for the review. I have been watching Oprah hype the movie around the Western world. Her rants claiming racism ring hollow in a world that enabled the recognition of her genius and rewarded it with incredible wealth. To illustrate what a lout I am, I am ashamed to admit I had never heard of 'kick-ass' one let alone two. I fear I shall see neither. http://coldwarwarrior.com/

  • April06||

    hi to every one

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