On the surface, framing the tumultuous civil rights era around the personal drama of a black butler working inside the White House might seem hokey. Folding history lessons in an entertaining package has always proven a difficult balancing act. But Lee Daniels' The Butler stands as a testament to reserved directing, a focused script and strong character-acting for the sake of the larger picture outside the movie house.
The heart and soul of the piece resides firmly in the capable hands of Forest Whitaker who, as titular character Cecil Gaines, balances pathos, pride, and strength with a human dash of regret. The other characters all seem to pass through his life but leave bold marks on him and the film's drama. Oprah Winfrey as Ms. Gloria Gaines, Terrence Howard as the sleazy philandering neighbor who takes advantage of the lonely Gloria, and Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as fellow White House help stand out the strongest for their raw abilities to inhabit their roles.
Though you would expect such actors to hold their own, the real delight of the Butler comes from the fact that there are no shortcomings in the film's supporting roles. The dynamic between the brothers of Cecil and Gloria offers a delightful comic relief, which is peppered amongst the drama just enough to keep the struggles of those times bearable. Elijah Kelley delights as the younger, naïve, parent-pleasing Charlie, and David Oyelowo embodies ultra-righteousness as Louis, jumping at every opportunity of civil disobedience to fight for his people's human rights (from protesting Jim Crow laws in the South to joining the Black Panther party). Meanwhile, the presidents — despite being played by high profile actors like Robin Williams (Eisenhower), John Cusack (Nixon), Liev Schreiber (LBJ), Alan Rickman (Reagan), and an unforgettable Jane Fonda as Nancy — never hang around the drama long enough to distract from its main concern of a black man struggling with apathy as the times change around him.
No character ever overshadows Cecil, who encapsulates an array of issues, from escaping an oppressive life on a cotton farm as a child to arriving at a revelation stemming from a simple gesture by taking a seat at a fancy dinner in his twilight years. It's this quiet struggle of a man trying to get by in a rough and tumble world that remains the film's main concern. The 52-year-old Whitaker does a noble job as he ages from a young man to a 90-year-old.
Compared to Daniels' powerful breakout Precious (2009) and the horrible, dull mess of the Paperboy (2012), the film features a reserved sensibility thanks to the director's decision to turn down the histrionics for a change. Throughout his short filmmaking career, Daniels has always shown a keen control over camera placement to keep a film visually dynamic, despite some dramatic failings. The Butler is no exception, as Daniels' artistry appears in the film's first frame. He still, however, leans on slow motion during a few scenes for overkill emphasis. He doesn't need that. His greatest accomplishment in The Butler lies in how he keeps the other characters in check against the quiet but important struggles of Cecil. Despite the film's many stars, no one is distracted as Daniels reveals a strong sense of mise-en-scène when burying the cast's celebrity. Daniels also continues to do raw well with make-up and wardrobe dialed down to keep it real and earthy.
The script deserves singling out as the glue that makes The Butler work as neatly as it does. Written by Danny Strong, the scribe behind another brisk political drama, the acclaimed McCain-Palin exposé Game Change on HBO, it makes for an engaging, well-paced affair despite running over two hours long. Strong based his script on a Washington Post article about a black man who served as a butler to eight presidents between the '50s and '80s. In order to emphasize the history and the tension of the civil rights movement on this family who happened to have close ties to the White House, Strong took liberties with the story. He created composite characters based on other memoirs with intimate access to the White House. It's a matter of convenience to place some of these characters at three or four too many important historical moments that may seem contrived to some. However, I'd forgive the film for teetering close to Forrest Gump cartoonery for the sake of its emphasis on moments in history that can too easily be forgotten as generations pass.
After the Supreme Court's recent decision to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, The Butler serves as an important role in reminding us that equality and malaise between ethnic groups and classes still festers in this era, even after the election of the first black president. We need a movie that looks back at history and offers a reminder about the long way America has come and the long way it still has to go. That The Butler can do it while remaining entertaining is a bonus many will appreciate.
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World War II was one of the most important events, not only in American history, but in the overall record of human events. Hollywood has not been shy about using the medium of film to tell the innumerable great stories of WWII and the ones we know well have had more than their fair share of cinematic interpretations: the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust, and the Normandy Invasion, just to name a few. However, there are quite a few stories that go largely overlooked and this week, one film being released in theaters strives to change that.
Anthony Hemingway’s Red Tails (produced by none other than Star Wars mastermind George Lucas), tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. This elite group of the first African-American Air Force pilots, who faced a great deal of racism as they came through training, rose beyond their hardships and proved to be some of the most successful fighters in the Air Force. The film stars, among others, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terence Howard. While most people still remember Cuba from his Oscar-winning role in Jerry Maguire and Terence Howard from the likes of Hustle and Flow and Iron Man, there are plenty of up-and-coming young actors in the film on whom we highly recommend you keep an eye as their careers are poised to soar as high as the bombers they pilot in the film.
If you were among those lucky enough to experience the surprise hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes in theaters last summer, then you’ll probably have no problem recognizing David Oyelowo. He played the treacherous Jacobs, the head of the company handling the drug tests on the apes. Oyelowo also appeared in 2011’s runaway hit The Help, which has already won a number of awards, the riveting BBC mini-series Five Days, and will next appear in Lee Daniel’s The Paperboy alongside Zac Efron and Nicole Kidman.
The first thing that will strike you about Nate Parker is his staggering resemblance to a young Denzel Washington; there is something about his smile and his strong jaw line that warrants the comparison. It is therefore fitting that Parker appeared with Denzel in the 2007 drama The Great Debaters; based on a true story. That same year, Parker appeared in Pride, also based on a true story, alongside his Red Tails costar Terence Howard. With those two films under his belt, along with another war epic entitled Tunnel Rats, it’ll be interesting to watch him take on a war drama on a much larger scale.
Michael B. Jordan
Though he shares his name with an NBA legend, Michael B. Jordan owes much of his acting career to a different icon. Jordan was discovered by Bill Cosby, who cast him in an episode of his 1999 TV series Cosby. From there Jordan landed roles in two phenomenally successful series: The Wire and Friday Night Lights. He also had a long-running spot on All My Children for which he was nominated for three Image Awards as well as a Soap Opera Digest Award for Favorite Teen. Jordan will next been seen in found footage superhero drama Chronicle.
Twenty-five-year-old Elijah Kelley is what has traditionally been referred to as a triple threat; he acts, he sings, and he dances. He got a chance to show off his dancing chops in the 2006 drama Take the Lead starring Antonio Banderas. He then got to show off his pipes in the 2007 remake of Hairspray. In addition to being such a versatile talent in front of the camera, Kelly has proven to be quite the philanthropist off screen. He’s set up a foundation in his hometown of LaGrange, Georgia to help local children achieve their dreams.
If you aren’t familiar with Shaffer Chimere Smith Jr. the actor, you may be better acquainted with his hip-hop alias Ne-Yo. He’s been topping charts and blowing up radio stations since his first album ‘In My Own Words’ dropped in 2006. As to his crossover into acting, he’s appeared 2007’s Stomp the Yard as well as last year’s sci-fi epic Battle Los Angeles. After Red Tails, Ne-Yo will next be seen in Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds.
LucasFilm has just announced that Grammy-winning jazz musician and composer Terrance Blanchard will head to the studio next month to score George Lucas' Red Tails, the WWII film about the Tuskegee Airmen, a legendary group of black combat pilots during the war.
Produced by Lucas and directed by Anthony Hemingway (The Wire), the picture has a pretty amazing cast, including Terrance Howard, NeYo, Andre Royo (The Wire), Nate Parker (The Great Debaters), David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Bryan Cranston, Method Man, Tristan Wilds (The Wire), Kevin Phillips (Pride), Rick Otto (The Wire), Lee Tergesen (Monster), Elijah Kelley (Hairspray), Marcus T. Paulk (Take the Lead), Leslie Odom Jr., Michael B. Jordan (The Wire), Jazmine Sullivan, Edwina Finley (Law and Order), Daniela Ruah (Midnight Passion) and Stacie Davis (The Wire).
As the release notes, this is the first time in 17 years that LucasFilm is producing a project without the words Star Wars or Indiana Jones in the title. And considering the amount of Wire-alums involved in this project, I feel like this is the appropriate response: Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeit.
Source: Jazz Corner (via /Film)
When eccentric writer/director John Waters made the subversive but colorful Hairspray in 1988—about a plus-sized girl and her dreams to dance as she breaks taboos in the early ‘60s—he probably thought it would be chalked up as another of his cult favorites. But here we are reviewing the latest Hairspray incarnation a movie version of the smash hit Broadway musical based on the 1988 offbeat classic. Funny how things work. The story is pretty much the same: The bubbly Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) a big girl with big hair and an even bigger heart wants to dance on Baltimore’s TV dance show The Corny Collins Show. Her mother Edna (Travolta) isn’t too keen on her daughter’s aspirations only because she doesn’t want to see Tracy hurt. But against all odds Tracy wows them on and off the TV screen squashing the reigning princess Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow) finding love with the local hunk Link (Zac Efron)—and fighting for racial equality on the hippest dance party on TV. Tracy is the cornerstone to making Hairspray zing—and every actress who has played her has nailed it in her own way. Ricki Lake gave us a good start as the original; Marissa Jaret Winokur won a Tony playing her on Broadway. Now we have brilliant newcomer Nikki Blonsky a former ice cream parlor employee who beat out several hundred girls to win the role. Her happy-go-lucky Tracy quite literally lights up the screen every time she appears and you find yourself grinning like a fool the whole time she is shimmying and shaking. Let’s hope she isn’t just a one-trick pony. The supporting cast is also very appealing. Michelle Pfeiffer who once again gets to use those lovely pipes of hers is perfectly unctuous as Velma Von Tussle Amber’s scheming mother and the TV station manager. Queen Latifah adds her certain joie de vivre as Motormouth Maybelle the host of Corny Collins’ “Negro Day.” Also good are Amanda Bynes as Tracy’s lollypop-eating best friend Penny Pingleton and Elijah Kelley as the groovin’ Seaweed Penny’s forbidden love. The one drawback is Travolta as the oversized Edna. He does a fair job as the caring mom who is reticent to let her daughter go out into the big bad world. We can even see the old Travolta we know and love come alive when Edna dances. But because the actor simply looks so very wrong in latex and lipstick it takes away from the performance. No one can really surpass the late Divine the original Hairspray’s Turnblad matriarch who did it au naturel. Directing a movie like Hairspray is basically a no-brainer and choosing Adam Shankman to helm is as good a choice as anyone else. He is certainly not known for his cinematic genius having directed fluff such as Cheaper by the Dozen 2 and The Pacifier but he understands the bubblegum appeal of a bee-bopping musical. Fueled by catchy tunes from the Broadway show plus a few new ones created just for the movie Shankman orchestrates the big song and dance numbers—of which there are plenty—in such a way to get you moving in your seat every time. He also frames his talent in their more personal character-driven songs with a steady hand. I just wonder what John Waters would have done with it. Maybe a little more dog poop? In any event forget about Chicago and Dreamgirls--Hairspray is the perfect popcorn movie musical that will get everyone dancing and singing the way Grease did a generation ago.
Like the many standard teacher-mentor stories before it Lead follows the same basic principals. It focuses on Pierre Dulaine (Antonio Banderas) a Manhattan dance teacher and competitor who volunteers his time to teach ballroom dancing to New York inner-city high school students serving detention. It’s never really explained why he wants to do this--maybe he’s just crazy that way. But through his determination the reluctant teenagers are soon waltzing and doing the tango all over the room. They even take it one step further and combine Dulaine's classical dance with their unique hip-hop style and music to create a high-energy unique fusion honing their craft for a prestigious city ballroom competition (and some of them win too!) And through it all Dulaine inspires these street kids to learn about pride respect and honor. Pardon me while I gag for a moment. Banderas does what he can with the syrupy role but tends to look uncomfortable with some of the line readings. Thankfully he’s got the moves. One of the better scenes is Dulaine dancing the tango with a hot blonde--to prove to the unbelieving teens how hip classical dancing can be. And after watching them slide all over the floor they get the picture. The urban kids are all pretty standard with Rob Brown (Finding Forrester) leading the pack as a troubled youth trying not to get involved with drug dealing but heading that way anyway. His love interest played by Yaya DaCosta also has her share of family strife. But as far as the best dancing is concerned hats off goes to Jenna Dewan Dante Basco and Marcus T. Paulk who all perform one heck of a steamy tango number. Alfre Woodard even makes an appearance as the school’s hardened principal who’s softened by Dulaine’s earnestness. How typical. Who would have thought ballroom dancing would be so popular these days? For awhile there was just one movie about it: the wonderfully quirky Strictly Ballroom. But then came the Richard Gere/Jennifer Lopez starrer Shall We Dance? (Americanized from a Japanese original) and last year’s stellar documentary Mad Hot Ballroom about street kids learning to dance. Now we’ve got Take the Lead which is also based on a true story about Dulaine and his efforts to introduce culture to inner-city kids. Sure ballroom dancing is fun to watch especially mixed with cool hip-hop moves. And in the hands of veteran music video and commercial director Liz Friedlander those dance scenes clearly stand out. Yet the fact Lead is Friedlanderr feature film debut it’s also clear she doesn’t have the skills to go beyond the cliché. They probably think they can away with a done-to-death story if the dancing pops. They’re mistaken.