'The Butler': Lifting the veil on black life

  • Article by: HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.  , The Root
  • Updated: August 19, 2013 - 1:57 PM
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Forest Whitaker stars in The Butler.

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I watched Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” in a standing-room-only theater on Martha’s Vineyard, with a thoroughly integrated audience of well-educated black and white people, whose ages ranged from teenagers and college students to midcareer professionals and retirees. The audience sat riveted over the entire course of the film, alternatively moved to laugh at the intraracial humor, to cry at the frailties and foibles of the all-too-human characters so vividly brought to life and to sit in pained -- sometimes stunned -- silence at the film’s most poignant revelations about the mysteries and horrors of race and race relations in 20th-century America.

I have to confess that I, a film junkie and a student of black cinema, past and present, found myself deeply and profoundly moved by “The Butler” from start to finish. There are several reasons that I was so engrossed with the film’s plot and the brilliantly subtle ways that Daniels brought Danny Strong’s extraordinary screenplay to life, but upon reflection, I think the most important of these is Daniels’ and Strong’s uncanny capacity to lift the veil, as W.E.B. Du Bois so famously put it, on how black people actually talk to one another behind closed doors, when they are free to speak unconsciously, without censoring themselves in front of white people or in the presence of the black thought police. In other words, when no one is around to disturb the unconscious flow of black culture at its most honest and direct.

How many other black films have ever achieved this quality? Not many, I am afraid. For even our most accomplished black filmmakers, when bringing the complex reality of African-American history and consciousness to the screen, still have a tendency to worry about “what white people will think of us,” or how telling the truth about ourselves might be “misused” by right-wing commentators or Tea Party detractors of our great president. So they censor themselves, for what they naively and mistakenly believe is the “greater good” of the political destiny of our people.

But this is always a mistake: Censorship -- even, or especially, self-censorship -- is to art as lynching is to justice. It aborts creative genius; it aborts the quest to find a language, in this case the language of film, to tell the truth about one aspect of the human experience, in its fullest complexity. But Daniels and Strong avoid this pitfall, a pitfall deadly to the creation of art, and do so magnificently. For this reason alone, although there are many other strengths in this film, both Daniels and Strong, in my opinion, deserve Academy Award and NAACP Image Award nominations for this great achievement.

But there is a second reason that I love this film: It achieves, implicitly, what so many black political figures and talking heads have been calling for since the George Zimmerman verdict was announced -- that proverbial “conversation about race” called for, it seems, every time another racist incident is inflicted upon a black person. Let me admit that I am dubious about “conversations about race” -- not because we don’t need to continue to address how the historical or systematic manifestations of structural and institutional racism persist in affecting how each and every black person can conduct his or her daily life. We do. And not because I think that the other source of anti-black treatment of our people -- individual attitudes, often unconscious ones, that reflect a deep-seated prejudice, rooted deep in the psyche -- should not be analyzed and worked through in a collective, national therapy session. We so urgently need this kind of psychological cleansing of personal bias.

It’s just that I don’t think either of these two causes of anti-black racism can be addressed sufficiently, once and for all, in a single “conversation about race,” no matter who is leading it, how many tears its participants shed and how many choruses of “We Shall Overcome” that sort of feel-good session ends with.

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“Conversations” meant to shape national cultural behavior don’t really happen in one day; they happen systematically, mostly unconsciously, in certain rituals and arenas that society has cleverly constructed for this purpose. The most important arena of all is our schools. Schools, for good and ill, have long been the prime venue for shaping citizens, for formulating the shared cultural-belief system that defines what is “an American” and what is official “American history,” starting with “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and the Pledge of Allegiance to how George Washington never told a lie after he chopped down that cherry tree.

This is why the culture wars have been so very important and have been fought so bitterly by right-wing extremists: because our people have been excluded from the official American narrative, except as objects rather than subjects. The only way to reshape the American narrative is for content about the black (and Hispanic and Asian and gay) experiences to become inextricably woven into the narratives that our children encounter each and every day in school, without fanfare or special pleading -- just a rich and nuanced account of how America came to be, and how each of our subject groups came to be in it, their origins, their treatment, their fates. And this is why the textbook will, perhaps, be the last battlefront in the long march for equal rights for African Americans, because everyone on the right understands the power that the classroom has, starting with kindergarten and first grade, to shape attitudes, especially attitudes about race and the history of race.

But popular culture is just as important, in its ways, as the classroom. And here is where “The Butler” excels, and why it is important for all Americans to see it. Strong’s script has two planes, or two narrative lines. The first is the universal story of the rise and fall and rise again of a father’s relationship with his son. We’ve all been there; we can all identify with the necessary alienation between generations, and the tensions that adolescence and emerging adulthood bring within any family. No family escapes these; but if a family is lucky, we ride these out and healing ensues.

In the case of the generation that came of age in the 1950s and ‘60s, these normal generational conflicts grafted themselves onto larger political changes both between the races and more especially within the race, in ways never seen quite so dramatically before in the history of the African-American people. Remember, the concept of being an “Uncle Tom” is only as old as the early 20th century (as Adena Spingarn’s pioneering scholarship revealed), and it was made popular by Marcus Garvey in his bitter, bitter feud with W.E.B. Du Bois.

Never before the ‘60s had the concept of race betrayal, as a reflection of generational difference, entered the family. We all -- those of our generation -- remember this and recall how very painful it could be for a child to reject the parent’s entire mode of being, his or her raison d’etre, as being that of a so-called race traitor. It was a horrible aspect of the black power movement, and we shouldn’t pretend that it didn’t happen when telling our history, or sentimentalize how nasty and pernicious it was. It was one of the low points in the internal history of our people.

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“The Butler” dramatizes the complexity of this phenomenon and this larger period within the race with stunning effectiveness. In fact, the most amazing thing, to me, about this film is the uncanny way that Strong’s screenplay and Daniels’ direction managed to get the black “voice” right. This film is like overhearing conversations in all-black venues, whether at the kitchen table, in the barbershop or beauty parlor or around the card table, playing whist all night long in extended games of “rise and fly.” The film, at its best, is the best intraracial history of what it was like being black in the ‘50s and ‘60s that I can remember seeing; the best account of relations within the race, both on personal and larger political levels, and how these, inevitably, interact with each other.

A few delightfully wrought and executed scenes come to mind: when the butler’s wife, Gloria Gaines (Oprah Winfrey), slaps her son for insulting his father for being just “a butler” (read: an Uncle Tom) and then summarily expels both him and his rude girlfriend from their home; when Gloria, in a powerful scene near the climax of the film, wonders if her daughter-in-law’s decision to give her granddaughter an “African” name is meant to be an insult against her; when a character cracks to a fellow card player not to funk up his bathroom; and when one of the White House butlers bends over and whispers the word “motherf--ker” in Cecil Gaines’ (Forest Whitaker) ear as he sits in black tie at a state dinner, perhaps the first time a butler was ever so invited.

In all of these scenes, we experience the powerful recognition of the truth and reality of the black experience within the human condition -- experiences that, in one way or another, we have all had; experiences that need to be shared and dramatized, without embarrassment or self-censorship. I also applaud the film for de-sentimentalizing the Gaineses’ marriage by including a subplot of Mrs. Gaines’ episode of infidelity.

This is the stuff -- the raw material -- of art. Far too often our artists -- especially filmmakers, I think -- make black characters speak as if they were making the case to skeptical white people that we are as fundamentally intelligent and as inherently dignified as we, within the race, know our people to be. And the results of falling into that trap can be hollow-sounding -- didactic and propagandistic; words that no feeling, human being actually speaks to another human being; words or patterns of behavior that don’t ring true. “The Butler” deftly avoids this pitfall and is a model for how the black experience can be represented in all of its dimensions, showing us at our best and our worst, but always at our most human.

In the end, as a scholar, I loved this movie for the easily digestible way it narrates three quarters of a century of African-American history in an entertaining and accurate way. If “The Butler” is widely seen, and I hope it will be, this is a most effective way to begin that long and subtle process of engaging America in that “conversation about race” that we all so deeply understand this country would do almost anything to avoid. Lee Daniels and Danny Strong are to be commended for collaborating on a magnificent achievement, creating a film in which history so refreshingly breathes.

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Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root.

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