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.
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.
Mark Millar, who writes the Kick-Ass comics, takes great pleasure in pushing already extreme situations even farther into up-your-nose territory. In the first movie, there was the gruesome girl-bashing scene toward the end (which I thought was a serious mistake); here it's an attempted rape of one of Dave's new costumed colleagues, a woman called Night Bitch (Lindy Booth). Non-fans of these films, of whom there are many, will likely be revolted by this assault. I think we can assume that Millar won't feel their pain.
The story climaxes with the requisite bloodbath, as the Kick-Ass crew and their nemeses beat each other senseless. Given all the inventively staged and thrillingly well-edited mayhem we've already witnessed, however, this final conflict staggers on too long. Too much isn't always not enough.
The movie feels like a hit. But as fast and funny as it is, it also feels like a placeholder in a larger story that will eventually be continued. Let's hear it for the Hit-Girl spinoff that's heavily foreshadowed at the end.