The Butler: The Art and Science of Self-Representation

If past is prelude (and, when it comes to America and race, it almost always is), Lee Daniels's "The Butler" will be nominated for several awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  This is a lovely name for an insider organization with a pretentious, academic-sounding name which many of us imbue with a undue credibility, simply because it is easier to do so than to create, support and burnish institutions that promote, debate and reward own independent thoughts and feelings about commercial film and "popular" culture.

At the memorial for the great actor and Howard professor Al Freeman in Howard's Cramton Auditorium last September, Ellen Holly, who played Freeman's wife, Carla (Gray) Hall on ABC's "One Life to Live" for years, brought the large audience to cheers when she noted that Hollywood did not reward complicated or heroic images of Black actors with Oscars.  She noted that Freeman should have won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Elijah Muhammad in "Malcolm X" (1992) and that Denzel Washington should have won the same year for playing the title role.

Washington's Best Actor Oscar, of course, came a decade later, for playing a crooked cop in the tired "Training Day," the same year Halle Berry clutched the statue for Daniels'  coming-out fantasy, "Monster's Ball."  Since that time, Daniels's ascent to an Academy-certified Black experience film narrator has been burnished with two statuettes, including one for Mo'Nique as Best Supporting Actress in "Precious" (2009).

Armond White and Harry Lennix have delivered some sharp words about Daniels' latest project, a narration of the mytho-historical life of Cecil Gaines, a stand-in for the real-life Eugene Allen (1919-2010), a White House butler for 34 years.  I read Mr. Haygood's Washington Post article, as well as his recently-published book/movie ad, "The Butler: A Witness to History." As always, I had to read both the words and the unspoken volumes between them.

I am an African who has both witnessed and experienced the hidden, sensitive and complex feelings held by African people (including members of my family)  who have endured jobs and relationships that required their silence in the face of white privilege and/or power. The internalized stressors of being Black in America, as artists from Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin to Charles Burnett and Julie Dash have so expertly revealed in their work, lead to complicated, bracing narratives that have proven untranslatable to White audiences or institutions looking for forgiveness or, better, forgetting.  Our Ancestors' sacrifices and ours were not so that we could elect one neoliberal Black president or collect statuettes from an industry that rewards reinscriptions of attitudes toward Black people that we neither hold or share. 

I doubt there are many Black people who would disagree with those sentiments. Some Black public media types swallow their innermost thoughts or attempt to weave them into amicable or faux-provocative translations rather than risk losing employment or visibility from the market-art-culture-politics complex they have told themselves they can impact with their presence, however muted.  It is painful to watch their fumbled or undisciplined responses when their colleagues (or one of their own) walk over the bridge such failed translations provide to "take it too far." 

This isn't a condemnation of Black folks on television, in the newspapers or on the web, for their stated opinions on "The Butler" or anything else. It is a simple statement that there are no bridges to be built to images, ideas or narratives that reinforce the idea that Black peoples' lives are an appendage to the narrative of American exceptionalism and its parent the idea of European historical supremacy.  It is also an expression of gratitude for having sound mind and body, the ability to think and to dialogue, and the great fortune to be surrounded by people and institutions where we can think critically and progressively about the African world experience, on our own complex terms and in our own collective interests.

Before--or after--you spend your money for Lee Daniels's latest broadside, consider doing just a little homework.

Armond White's review of "The Butler":

Harry Lennix's comments:

A comparison of Mr. Allen's experiences and "The Butler"'s story arc, from Slate Magazine, Time Magazine, and the Daily Beast:



Embed Block
Add an embed URL or code. Learn more