From “The Help” to “The Butler”: The Troubling Politics of Hollywood


Let me be honest, I rather liked “Lee Daniel’s The Butler.”  I’m hoping for Academy Award nominations for the portrayals of Cecil Gaines and Gloria which were the based off of the real life story of the black butler who served across eight U.S. presidents by the names of Eugene and his wife Helene Allen.  One touching part about the movie was how much they humanized the presidents.  Even the likes of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan who aren’t much well liked in the black community were given moment of possessing the human touch that the movie displayed without coming off as forced or sappy.

I thought the movie accurately portrayed the civil rights historical events and gave about as much credence as one could expect from a biopic movie that sought to entertain rather than inform.  One of the challenges that Hollywood faces, even as left leaning as they are, is having to grapple with how what is produced is digested and entered into the public conscience as reality.  When I first saw Quentin Tarentino’s “Inglorious Basterds” I really wondered how much of it was based on a real series of events.  Of course by the end when Hitler, Goebbels and the rest were killed in a movie fire I realized just how faux it really was.  However, movies like that and even Tarentino’s “Django Unchained” which have no connection to real persons, but exist as a historical portmanteau of cinematography, when patrons leave the theater, they are more quick to point to a movie as fact rather than do a quick Wikipedia search to find out just how accurate was what they saw.

Granted the movie debuted just this week and perhaps the legions of black feminists and their supporters have yet to gin up their legions of waiting bloggers and columnists and writers of every kind to come out against “The Butler,” but given the past week that featured #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen and #BlackPowerIsForBlackMen hashtags on twitter that spawned enough writing (including mine own blog) that would be worthy of a volume or two published, I wouldn’t be shocked if the tidal wave of negative critique is coming.  Lest we recall just how much black women assailed “The Help” while simultaneously praising the acting of Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis for its inaccurate portrayal of black women domestics.  What always got me about the critique of “The Help” was that it wasn’t violent enough.  Melissa Harris-Perry famously tweeted, wrote and spoke that the only instance of true historicity was when the one made was roughed up by the police officers.  Many were expecting to see the violent rape of a white male over that of the black domestic in which that would have made it really real I suppose.  However, the stories of black domestics in my family and families of people I know don’t include these violent stories, let alone one that even spoke of sexual assault.  I guess they’re lying.

The highest criticism was that the story of “The Help” was told through the eyes of Skeeter, the young plucky white girl and it was not a story that was told by, let’s say by Aibleen or Minny directly.  Here with “The Butler” we have the story of a black man told directly more or less.  Eugene Allen’s story was spawned from a newspaper article featured in the Washington Post on the night of Barack Obama’s election entitled “A Butler Well Served By This Election” written by Will Haygood who was a writer for the movie.  Not much else was or is known about Allen’s life beyond what Haygood published, however for the sake of the movie, the dramatizations of the ancillary characters that move this movie from a PBS documentary to contending for a blockbuster hit and Oscar nod, is where the troubling gender politics take place.

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Primarily, the story of Louis Gaines is complete fiction.  There was no second second son of real-life Eugene and Helene Allen, and while their one and only son who did serve in Vietnam, he did return home alive.  The concept of Cecile Gaines having a son embroiled on the front-lines of the civil rights movement and associated with the Black Panther Party was completely made-up for the sake of dramatization.  To Eddie Glaude’s point, the movie engages a “black liberal consensus narrative” that The-Butlercompletely discounts black radicalism as part of the metanarrative.

This black liberal consensus narrative looks back at history with the benefit of knowing not only how the story ends but also with knowing what dominant story emerged.  That is to say this narrative uplifts the extemporaneous rhetoric of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” but ignores his “Beyond Vietnam” speech or fails to acknowledge the searing condemnation of America’s clergy for remaining silent on the issue of civil rights as penned in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  This narrative is one that many blacks, as the movie did, place the election of Obama in the lineage of this tradition.  It is noted in that small quip “Rosa sat so Martin could fight, Martin fought for Obama to win.”  Even for me, I couldn’t help but add my own twist that goes “Rosa sat, so Martin could fight; Martin fought for Jesse to run; Jesse ran for Obama to win.”   Still, even my own twist discounts the realness and legitimacy of the Black Power Movement, and acts as though civil right started with Rosa Parks.

Now for what it’s worth, I didn’t exactly interpret the scenes as did Glaude when it came to connecting the dots of blackness, womanhood and sexuality.  Much like Lena Younger’s character in “Raisin in the Sun” I saw Gloria Gaines a woman of her era when it came to her interactions with Terrence Howard’s character, her battle with alcohol and more specifically how she interacted with her eldest son and the girlfriend.  For parents of that generation, life was very linear and there were basic actions that were to expect basic outcomes.  I daresay that it wasn’t so much that they were fighting for civil rights, but also the fear that the parents lived in not knowing if they’d get word of their sons death.

The gut-wrenching scene where Oprah slaps Louis and refers to the girlfriend in an extremely derogatory way, while may be unsettling for the image it provokes, my question that I would ask Glaude and those who agree, is whether or not it is wholly untrue image?  If historical evidence and facts say that this was a fallacious image of a black woman associated with the Black Panther Party, then so be it, I’ll join your protest of it as an image.  But if not, then what’s the point of challenging it as an image.

In light of the past week where the black blogosphere has been all abuzz concerning gender in the black community, I can’t help but imagine that some of my sisteren will take umbrage with this movie not highlighting Gloria, the wife or any of the other women in the movie.  But the movie wasn’t about them.  In much the same way that blacks a whole have been charged with always being on “racial alert” with regards to always looking out for prejudices or instances of bigotry and perhaps finding them in instances that really aren’t racially charged, I think the same goes for black women looking through the lens of black feminism and womanism alleging patriarchal bias, male privilege and heternormative standards are being employed thereby disadvantaging black women.  The problem, as I’ve stated before, with this approach is that it merely reverse the roles of privilege, not dismantling them all together.

That being said, I was very intrigued by the character of Carol, played by Yaya Alafia.  While her character was tolerated by Gloria at first, it quickly devolved into an absolute disgust as they left the dinner table.  Then her character ended abruptly with her penchant for murder.  While they may leave some with unease, fact is that this was reality.  There were members of the Black Panther Party that moved beyond simple nationalistic pride and supporting Black power, but it did have anarchist individuals and threads that existed.  However, this goes back to Glaude’s point about the black liberal consensus agenda that rarely explores these motifs within the black community.  Aside from the one movie “Panther” that came out in the mid-90s, not many movies with black starring characters really broach this subject.

the butler jfkSome movie critiques have called this movie “Forrest Gump-like” in the sense that it follows a man through the hopscotch of major milemarkers in history.  I think to compare the story of Cecil Gaines to that of Forrest Gump is to reduce the real life of Eugene Allen.  Forrest Gump was a fictionalized white guy created to make this country feel good about itself, and his low cognitive skills mixed with happenstance allowed him to be on the right side of history.  Eugene Allen, on the other hand, was indeed a fly on the wall on the life of the White House, probably seeing and maybe even hearing things before the rest of the wold even knew what was about to happen.  But more so, his blackness and his black skin forced him to be invisible–while the whites around him didn’t even give it a second thought.

Hollywood betted on the star power of Oprah Winfrey and by all accounts they bet correctly with the movie taking the number one spot for the weekend.  But was this a “black” movie?  Was this a movie like Steve Harvey’s “Think Like a Man” or a Tyler Perry production such as “Temptation” where although it’s greenlighted by Hollywood it’s not expected to be a box office hit?  Hollywood has always had a black problem when it came to how movies were produced, written and marketed.  Andre Seewood wrote in an article “Why White People Don’t Like Black Movies

A vast majority of White people don’t like Black movies because they lack the empathy necessary to identify with Black characters which in turn affects their ability to “suspend disbelief” and surrender to the narrative of a Black film.  What has been called the Racial Empathy Gap in various sociological studies conducted by researchers at the University of Milano-Bicocca and the University of Toronto Scarborough have revealed that,” The human brain fires differently when dealing with people outside of one’s own race.”(1)  This study found that the degree of mental activity when White participants watched non-White men performing a task was significantly lower than when they watched people of their own race performing the same task. “In other words people were less likely to mentally simulate the actions of other-race than same-race people.” (2)

When we watch a film we are watching images of people doing tasks in the pursuit of a goal to change a circumstance and it stands to reason that if the threshold of empathy in Whites is higher when watching non-Whites perform certain tasks because of the Racial Empathy Gap, then if the Whites are watching a Black film such a high empathy threshold would make the suspension of disbelief difficult and attenuate the pleasure of their viewing experience.

Blacks alone in this country do not make up enough of the movie-going audience to single-handedly boost a movie into the number one weekend box office spot.  While yes, when certain “black” movies or even movies with a title black character are shown you may even see a mostly black audience, but those are usually movie theaters in urban or suburban areas where blacks frequent.  This does not take into account that this country is still majority white–by far–and the dozens of movie theaters in small towns and rural America that may see mostly white audiences.

So if Hollywood producers and execs are greenlighting movies that have the ability to attract whiter audiences, I wonder just how much are they playing into appeasing white sensibilities and supporting the black liberal consensus at the expense of telling more truthful adaptations of real lie events.  Recently movies like “The Help” about the black domestics in Jackson, Mississippi or “42” the Jackie Robinson biopic all have attempted to play to larger audiences that are telling the historical story of blacks in this country.  Even when Tyler Perry puts together a star studded cast of black actors with “For Colored Girls” in attempt to highlight black women in this country, it just doesn’t work.

If reporters are calling the character of Cecil Gaines “The Forrest Gump of the racial underclass” I think the whole point of the story has been lost.  Cecil Gaines can be placed on the shelf of cute cinematic delves into history right along with “Steel Magnolias”– the first one please and thank you.   Boston Globe reviewer Ty Burr writes:

I’ve never seen a movie this mainstream-minded so little concerned with what a white audience thinks, not in a confrontational way but in its simple fidelity to black American life as it was experienced in the mid-20th century. This is how we lived, the movie says. This is what our homes looked like, and how our music sounded; this what we argued over at the kitchen table and how we celebrated, what divided us and what brought us together.

Is mainstream the goal or not?  Black people who have inhabited this space have tried to do so with the dashing success of Jamie Foxx and Will Smith and then there are those that exist on the comedic fringes that reek of Amos ‘n Andy minstrel characters when you watch some of the members of the Wayans’ clan or even some of the episodes of “The Martin Show” with Martin Lawrence.  All have contributed to the formation of black actors doing the “Hollywood shuffle” to eke out a living in what has proven to be an unforgiving landscape that likes to pigeonhole the images of black culture.

What’s interesting is that “The Butler” juxtaposed to some of Tyler Perry’s independent movies (those that were not originally stage plays) such as “A Family That Prays” or “Daddy’s Girls” or “Temptation” the depiction of black middle class is still one that Hollywood as a whole does not seem to embrace for the sake of mainstream portrayal.  This is an era where a movie like “Django Unchained” will get more viewers talking about slavery than probably the actual upcoming movie “12 Years” about the real life story of Solomon Northup, a free man who was sold into slavery.

These are the stories that make America–black and white–uncomfortable.

I still think Hollywood cares what they think because they care about the box office numbers.  This is something that was not said about “Precious” also directed by Lee Daniels.  “Precious” was this movie that was full of shock and awe, as did moments in “The Butler” that were rather jarring and unsettling to the vocal distaste of many in the theater I attended.  The character of Precious ran the gamut for all that we could imagine that plagues the inner-city black communities and the imagery of it at many time classified it as a black movie.  Daniels went on record to say that, at first he was “embarrassed” to show Precious” at Cannes because he did not want “to exploit black people” and wasn’t sure if he “wanted white French people to see our world.” Part of the reason for this is that there wasn’t a nationwide release of the movie; it only opened in select theaters of which we can assume were probably in most urban areas.  But this highlights the tragic nature of which black stories are told in spaces mostly occupied by white consumers.

Interestingly enough, there were no overarching white saviors in either of the Lee Daniels movies that existed as a lynchpin with which to overcome the racial empathy gap that Seewood wrote about.  In this vein, I think there is an attempt to mainstream this type of story.  But for the record, it’s being done by someone with the backing of Oprah Winfrey.  Let’s not mistake the fact that the power of Oprah is real.

As a final note of criticism, I think it is interesting how Hollywood (not withstanding Tyler Perry) has burgeoned with these black-themed mainstream movies such as “The Help,” “Precious,” “42,” “Django Unchained” and now “The Butler” in the Age of Obama.  I think it plays into the fetishizing of blackness that white America has done historically in many instances and how the black liberal consensus has fed into as well.  One’s blackness is on the line when trying to determine is it worth giving up some creative license for mainstream, or is the authenticity compromised too much for that chance of the mainstream.

Lee-Daniels-The-Butler-Michael-Rainey-Jr.-and-Vanessa-RedgraveAfter all is said and done, I watched this movie and saw my parents.  I saw the quiet dignity of my father, who at five years old picked cotton much like the telling of Cecil young and in the fields, grown up through life and married to my mother for the past 41 years as a testament to  my story.  The story of a black married couple is what this movie also showed and that was something that could identify with as their son.

If this is an image Hollywood wants to mainstream, by all means, you have my permission.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL


4 thoughts on “From “The Help” to “The Butler”: The Troubling Politics of Hollywood

  1. enjoyed this piece.

    I really liked the movie and I went in a skeptic.

    I appreciated the ugly of our struggles being shown.

    I appreciated the loving Black Couple in it ‘until death do they part’

    I appreciated the son going back to the roots his family laid for him – school, education, using it to change from within.

    I definitely enjoyed Black people showing that they had lives outside of the job…full lives.

  2. Saw the movie today, excellent. IMO, should be required viewing among young people; timely release.

    In the spirit of the 50th year observation of the August 28, 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom, msnbc’s ‘March on Washington’ link to MLK’s 1963 appearance on Meet the Press (about four segments) is worth the effort to watch.

    Again, IMO, worth the watch.

    Thanks Uppity for this post.

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