Every now and then, someone will ask me why I go to the movies so often. The CliffNotes reply I usually offer is this: I go to be impressed by craft and enlightened by truth.
The best films (“Casablanca”) fulfill both these obligations. The worst (erm, “The Room”) fulfill neither. Most are stuck somewhere in between. This summer’s “Fast and Furious 6” is not exactly replete with heavy themes, but it turns Cars Doing Crazy Car Things into a kind of adrenalized art. Conversely, two of 2013’s biggest historical dramas, “42” and “The Butler”, convey an important message in spite of their shoddy construction. It’s a message about change”“ and one well worth remembering as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March On Washington.
Both of these films aim to be Important Motion Pictures. They are both handsomely filmed and rousingly scored. They both feature real-life subjects; “42” deals with Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League baseball, and “The Butler” is a fictionalized biography of Eugene Allen, a black man who served eight U.S. presidents. Both pictures aim for greatness. Both are hamstrung by messy scripts and maddeningly poor casting.
“42,” it must be said, is full of colorful and intriguing supporting turns; heck, Harrison Ford gives his best performance in years as gruffly golden-hearted team manager Branch Rickey. But Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson not as a man but as a noble abstraction. Like the screenwriters, he seems more interested in telling the man’s basic story than exploring his personality. The best biopics–“Ray,” for example–do both.
“The Butler,” by contrast, has two strong leads. Forest Whitaker is quietly heartbreaking in the title role, and Oprah Winfrey makes a triumphant return to acting as his fiery and troubled wife. But the stars who play the presidents are almost uniformly awful. Who saw John Cusack and said, “There’s our Nixon!”? The man is exactly as well-suited to this role as I would be to a position on the Dallas Cowboys.
These films don’t get their point across with much grace or ingenuity, but hey, truth clumsily told is still truth. The point is best summarized by a line from “The Butler,” delivered by a fictionalized version of King himself. Talking to young activists, he exhorts them to appreciate the work of African-Americans employed in white households or establishments. While King and co. battle for equality through organized action, these people, by performing their jobs with competence and dignity amidst deeply unfair conditions, have aided the civil rights cause as well. King argued that skin color was no impediment to industriousness or intelligence. Men like Eugene Allen and Jackie Robinson served as living proofs of his thesis.
Author Thich Nhat Hanh said that “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” As we reflect on that fateful march, these flawed but powerful films remind us to be thankful for the men and women from all walks of life who helped open our collective eyes.