Sunday, August 18, 2013

Lee Daniel's New Movie The Butler is a Very "Conservative" and "American" Story. But is The Butler a Black Version of Forrest Gump?

The Butler is a serviceable film with inspired moments. And as noted by many critics, the stunt-casting of the various presidents who Forest Whitaker's version of long-time White House butler Mr. Eugene Allen (named Cecil Gaines in the movie) encounters throughout the decades, is a distraction. Lee Daniels' heart is in the right place; The Butler is a bloated mess where its broad themes are more admirable and noteworthy than any of its particulars.

The Butler does offer up some positives. It is one of the few major movies in recent years where the focus is primarily on the African-American actors. Moreover, it is especially noteworthy that we can have a "black film" that does not descend into the coonery and buffoonery of Tyler Perry and others' take on new age race minstrelsy. The dignity and difficulties faced by the black men who work at The White House as staff, trained to be "invisible men", is deftly channeled by the panoply of actors involved.

Given their shared narrative format (broad historical arcs and over-simplication of history), it is tempting to compare The Butler to Forrest Gump. Such a move is superficial. Forrest Gump is a movie about a white man who is an unknowing part of history, is present at major events, but is ultimately not responsible for anything. Forrest Gump the character represents the innocence of Whiteness as something ahistorical and without the burdens of either history of historical memory (except for all the "feel good" innocence of American exceptionalism).

In all, Forrest Gump, both the movie and the character, is about how Whiteness, and white folks in mass who are either unwilling or in denial about white privilege and racism as foundational forces in American and modern history, would like to imagine themselves.

The Butler is very conscious of history and its connections to the present. Cecil Gaines is "us"; Cecil Gaines is the black viewer, our kin, community, and extended family. White folks are not reduced to spectators per se: they are are validated by a feel good story of how much "their America" has changed for the better and the means through which powerful white elites ultimately do "the right thing" in terms of civil rights.

Forrest Gump is an exercise in rejecting and evading historical responsibility. The Butler is a meditation on black respectability and the many connections between small acts of day-to-day resistance by regular folks such as maids, butlers, Pullman car porters, etc., titans like Dr. King, and a Black Freedom Struggle which resulted in the election of Barack Obama.

The Butler and Forrest Gump do share some political and thematic similarities. For example, they both mock and caricature the Black Power Movement. The Butler through news sound bites, Nixon's meeting about Cointelpro, and Cecil's son's involvement with the Black Panthers depicts them as a violent group of clowns who are the bastard children of the "good" Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. King.

This is a flattening of history that ignores the overlap between different elements in the Black Freedom Struggle. It is also inaccurate to depict the Black Panthers as a type of violent organization populated by blaxsploitation versions of Black Radicalism. The White Racial Frame and consensus racial liberalism need to misrepresent Black Nationalism as a means of cementing their sense of triumph and legitimacy in post civil rights America. The Butler does that political work quite effectively.

As a very "white" film, Forrest Gump takes a complementary approach. Gump's love interest, "Jenny" the "white fallen woman" character, takes up with a similarly cartoon-like "Black Radical" group who rape and sexually exploit her until Forrest saves her from their evil "black beast rapist" machinations. He then makes a "good woman" out of her, rehabilitating her character as they recreate the white nuclear family at the end of the movie.

Lee Daniels' The Butler is extremely conservative politically and fits solidly within the post civil rights America Hollywood race relations project. Cecil Gaines is a legitimation of the (black) Horatio Alger myth. If you work hard, suffer, and be quiet, then you too can change your part of the world and find success in America. The message: blacks and other people of color should not be disruptive or radical. Work within the system, and if you are patient, then the American Creed--because the United States is the best country on Earth--will reward you as it corrects its defects over time.

There are white racist villains in America--most of them in the South of course. There are also good benevolent white people, such as the various Presidents of the United States, who will do the right thing by black and brown folks if given the time. And of course, the cult of Saint Ronald Reagan--who was a States' Rights supporting racist that used the Southern Strategy and the image of the black "welfare queen" to win elections--has to be reinforced and perpetuated at every opportunity.

Students of black politics will find much to discuss and debate about The Butler. Cecil Gaine's son's transition from the liberal integrationism of Dr. King and mainline civil rights, to his joining the Black Power movement, to eventually becoming involved in establishment "urban" Democratic politics is a metaphor and example of the challenges, shortcomings, and successes of black political mobilization and incorporation over the decades.

Louis Gaine's development, the tension with his father, and Nixon's discussion of how to demobilize black radicals through targeted outreach and patronage, complements the thesis and claims made by Cedric Johnson in his book From Revolutionaries to Race Leaders.

The Butler also has a nice wink and "Easter Egg" for students of Black Politics when Oprah Winfrey's character looks through her son's possessions and discovers Manning Marables' book "Race, Reform, and Rebellion".

Dr. Marable recently passed away. It would be nice to believe that Lee Daniels wanted to include Marable's book as an acknowledgement of his role as one of the senior scholars in the study of African-American politics and history.

The Butler is a near perfect film for the Age of Obama. It meditates on the complexities of black respectability, black pride, and black (apparent) submission and deference to the White Gaze. The Butler clearly depicts how black confidence and dignity were traits to be punished by white supremacist violence.

The Butler then offers a corrective to this history though the acts of quiet resistance and quiet revolution that were made by men such as Eugene Allen.

In The Butler, American history comes full circle with a black servant to white presidents meeting the country's first African-American president. Of course, there is no mention of the vitriolic white racism that Obama's election has inspired from the White Right and the Tea Party GOP in The Butler. The ending of the film will not allow it.

Instead, The Butler gives audience members of every racial background something to celebrate. American exceptionalism is once again reinforced through racial catharsis and healing. Black folks can go from the lynching tree (one of the first scenes of The Butler) to the White House. History is a tapestry of lies and truths; together they do political work through popular culture. The Butler is one more example of that phenomenon in practice.


Michael Paul Goldenberg said...

BACKSTAIRS AT THE WHITE HOUSE precedes this movie by decades and, I suspect, raised a number of similar points (I've seen that min-series, but not this new film and am not eager to do so)

chauncey devega said...

I will have to track that down. I was thinking something similar too--how many other movies have dealt w. similar themes (likely many) and how many did Daniels borrow from?

Tim said...

I have been reading WARN for a while now and have been enjoying your insights and writing but don't think I have commented before. As of yet, I have not seen The Butler and I usually won't read reviews, etc., until I have seen a film but decided to read this.

Your comments fit with what I was imagining the film to be like from what I had been finding out about it in the last few days, if that makes any sense (I really was not aware of its development until the story about Oprah in the Swiss boutique broke). If fact, I had already thought it sounded kind of like Forrest Gump! I especially thought that it sounded like one of those movies that was made to make white people feel better about themselves.

So I don't really have that much to say about this piece, that is, I pretty much agree with what you say about all the points above, it's just that I haven't seen this movie yet. And despite figuring that I might give it a pass in the theater and just wait for Netflix, etc., maybe I will go after all.

I am wondering, have you looked at the film's IMDb page? ( ) Under the "message boards" heading (scroll almost down to the bottom), there is one that says "racist trolls." This person states a belief that many people give "black" movies low number-of-stars ratings on IMDb without even seeing them. It is quite lengthy with responses and unfortunately many of them are quite nasty and make the point of the original poster. Another theme is that the film promotes a "liberal agenda" that is designed to make white people feel guilty!

BTW, Forrest Gump was pretty misogynistic, too (not saying for a moment that you said or implied it wasn't) and I realize it is kind of OT for this post. There was a detail about the end that I remember differently and I could be wrong; but rather than a nice, traditional, nuclear family at the end, I recall that Jenny was conveniently disposed of through dying of childbirth complications or some unnamed disease, after, of course, providing FG with a healthy, "normal," male child.

Sorry this is so long. I really like this blog.

chauncey devega said...

Please, write more. Virtual space is cheap real estate. Jenny dies of HIV. I think that was made much clearer in the book and its sequel. Forrest Gump is one of my favorite movies. Folks often wonder we can problematize it while still enjoying it. My analogy is eating fast food. As long as you know what you are eating, and that it is bad for you, then proceed at your own risk.

I will check out the imdb page. As you know, I like to go white supremacist websites, they too are thoroughly disappointed.

Do keep reading and thank you for your comment.

Black Sci-Fi said...

I was in no hurry to see
"The Butler" or "The Help". In fact I'm waiting for a REAL
movie about Nat Turner or Toussaint Louverture or Gen. Dumas of the French Revolution before I can, if ever, support any more “when we was negros” movies
like any of the aforementioned Hollywood (pleasin’ Ol massa) films.
Asian, European and African filmmakers make films about their people without the shackels of pandering to a dominant society. This is what’s so sad about, “Forgive Paula Dean” Oprah and Lee “white boy rape’n Halle Berry” Daniels, having the money and opportunity to do and say more only to pander to the edges of the white power frame.

This is a sad road to travel as an African American filmmaker and is so similar to the political reality of the "real" reason Halle Berry was awarded an Oscar, by her...uh... "peers". Guess who produced "Monster's
Ball? Oh, Brother. Lee, I would have paid the price of a movie ticket to you NOT to make that film.

I have had my worst fears about The Butler just about confirmed by your review. Of course, it would be ignorant for me to critique the movie without seeing it.

But, my sister, whom I respect and share a love of sci-fi movies with, saw it with some of her girlfreinds the other day. I asked her several pointed questions in the hope that I could discern the scope of the film as carefully nuanced (White Power Frame) historical fact.

Between her answers and your review it would seem that "we" cannot find truth in "our" movies if the goal is profit, over truth. Truth can be entertaining. In fact, truth is the most entertaining form of artistic expression, or so it is often said about artists who starve today only to be worshiped tomrrow, upon their demise.
The Butler and The Help are certainly not art considered “ahead of its time”. Quite the opposite.

Learning is Eternal said...

I hope you saw a decent bootleg copy. Them queens: Lee & Tyler won't get a dollar from me. It's disappointing. I supported Whitaker/Fruitvale & here he is working w/a non-respectable negro. Still a great read this article, probably the only honest critique available. Everything else will be Chapstick to lip, ass-kiss reviews or 'journalism.'

chauncey devega said...

A Hollywood movie liberating anyone? Negro please. This is a product designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator like most others.

Don't be hating on Monsters Ball. That scene with the curtains and Miss Berry? Damn!

Shady Grady said...

I'm not watching any more movies about maids, butlers, chauffeurs, dysfunctional fat women, pimps or rappers.

How about a movie about Bass Reeves, Toussaint L'Ouverture, Hannibal, Paschal Beverly Randolph, Antonio Grajales, Amilcar Cabral or other more active people? Why not a movie version of the book "Standing At the Scratch Line"?

chauncey devega said...

Will Smith is supposed to do a Hannibal project. You know I want my Colonel Tye movie. I would also like a movie about the real Harriet Tubman who was the equivalent of a scout sniper, spy, and infiltrator.

Movies about black pride and self-reliance cannot exist within the Hollywood system.

Black Sci-Fi said...

Just a couple of things:
1) I cringe whenever black women are raped on screen...period. I edited out my snarky comment about Ken Norton being overlooked for and Oscar nomination/win for his similar role in Mandingo.
2) I respect your blog and find it to be a refreshing area to exchange ideas. Thanks for being you. I also appreciate your perspective when I roam too far into "crazyland".
3) With the advent of "crowdfunding", there is no excuse for African-Americans to keep supporting films that don't meet our cultural expectations and pander to the least common (aka: white power frame) denominator.
Spike Lee is tapping into "crowdfunding" for his next project. I'm more than curious about the cultural "message" his film will attempt to convey.

chauncey devega said...

I appreciate your and everyone else here on WARN's perspective when I go to crazy land too.

I am excited about the prospect of crowd funding for the arts. But, if it is a for profit movie, I am worried about that just being a way for the Hollywood system to get a win/win.

They don't have to subsidize or take the risk, and we the consumer don't get anything out of it directly, i.e. do the crowd funders get free passes or other materials?

For small indie projects sure--I am going to be working on a graphic novel in the near future and using Kickstarter once we get near the end of the process--it makes sense. But do I want to say I helped pay for a movie that made millions at the box office and I still had to buy a damn ticket?

And what if the lowest common denominator also includes coonery and buffoonery? The masses are asses, we need to get ready for that aspect too.

John said...

Not a major film, there is one about L'Ouverture done recently.

OaktownGirl said...

This is so refreshing to read, and extremely well written, might I add. Sadly, it seems my impression garnered from the commercials was spot-on.