“The Butler” versus Black August: Liberal Tunnel Vision of Historical Radical Traditions

As of late, it seems as though the media at large has tried to desensitize the violence and realities of the Civil Rights movement by eliminating genealogies of the Black Liberation Movement in the United States. From Bill O’ Reilly and Don Lemon tag- teaming on “Black Respectability” politics, to NPR’s attempts to get the liberal population to realizes the harsh constrictions of the various marches, protests, and civil disobedience that was the catalyst to the Civil Rights legislation amendments-  everyone is trying to get up in some ‘post-blackness’ feels. As a student of Black radical traditions, I am well aware of the complexities of such events, and also more cognizant of the sacrifices made by individuals that had clearer, defined political outlooks that stemmed outside just intergrationalist politics of the United States. As a product of Texas public school systems, I understood that: slaves from Africa came on a ship, Harriet Tubman freed them, Rosa Parks sat on a bus so that everyone could be equal, John F. Kennedy died for Black intergrationalist sins, and eighties never happened- and then from U.S. government class- Bill Clinton gave us welfare. SO, in regards to “The Butler”,  I am almost certain that Lee Daniels was well aware that the majority of people that had my type of education would flock to the film- and thus, he took it upon himself to add a dash of complexity and a sprinkle of human vulnerability to all active characters (including RONALD E’FNN REAGAN) in the film. To trigger empathy from the tea party and Huff Po readers alike? I suppose.

******************SPOILER  ALERT*********************

I am not even going to waste time really critiquing Lee Daniels’ in the post- honestly, if you liked “Monsters Ball” GTFOH. If you thought “Precious” brought to light all the memes you kind of culturally understand on twitter GTFOH. Instead, I am going to pick out key scenes where I am almost positive Daniels’ consulted help from key leaders of the African American leaders; such as Don Lemon, Billy Cosby, the lady from, and probably Tim Wise.

Intro Scene:

Mariah Carey, the biracial/”mulatta” woman, who gets raped on the plantation in the first five minutes. Daniels’ did not even let her talk! The people at the theatre were more concerned with just popping up with a Blec husband, and a son (who is The Butler- see dude was never really humanized outside his profession- because I don’t remember his name like that… oh wait, its Cecil?) 10x darker than her. Anyway, my beef with that scene is that as soon as the her husband went to challenge the plantation head- he was shot, as if protecting “Black Womanhood” has been only deadly.  Anyway, I would have preferred the torture technique of rape to be shown systematically throughout that scene- but Daniels’ is not about that life. He did, however, jump right into the debate of light skin versus dark skin politics by making Carey’s character the victim. Nice touch, Daniels’- too bad though the rapes on plantations were indiscriminate, dark, light, child, elderly, male, female – the slavemaster tortured via rape- to not recognize all types of survivors of those particular atrocities is cheap writing.  Read more here about how Mariah felt about her role in this film, and moreover being Biracial in 1960’s New York.

Cecil, escapes into segregated but free south, steals food, apologizes, asks for a job, says he is a great “house nigga”, and then gets slapped for using the “N” word. LOL. Why did the this shot take about 2 minutes?  Mariah could have send something profound with those two minutes. Was it me, or did the guy that slap him look directly into the camera when he berated Cecil for using the “N” word. We get it Daniels’, all your liberal homies that went to college right before Hip Hop and Hip Hop culture  became a legitimate artistic black production in the eyes of the  post-modern intellect don’t like folks saying it. OK. Also, that old guy was a trip- Cecil just escaped an illegal slave plantation- bruh, I’m pretty sure what you are referencing did not directly affect his life (as we were reminding by quick shots of lynched men).  This would have been the perfect opportunity to expose how slavery did necessarily end on these plantations- but instead manifested into capitalistic endeavors, such as “chain gangs” and “sharecropping” that kept people under defacto slavery. But, Daniels’ you are not about that life.

The only way to humanize Oprah was to make her an alcoholic? I mean….

Anyway, I had so many problems with Cecil’s’ demonization of his son’s radicalism or awakening as I would like to call it. I am going to leave that for you to experience. What I really want to talk about is this role Yaya Da Costa executed, a knock off Angela Davis- well more like the dehumanized version of Angela Davis. We watch Carol Hammie grow from a college aged freedom rider, to a feminist Black Panther member- alongside her love interest that was Cecil’s son. Through that transition, we see a girl full of courage but fear (scene where she was spat on at the lunch table is an important one) to a heartless, radical woman ready to “take 2 out for every one they take from her community”. Outside of the blatant continuation of misconceptions of the Black Liberation Movement, Black femininity was juxtaposed as non- existent when politicized. Carol, Cecil’s son ( I am purposely not using his name, because I do not remember it- and I think that was supposed to happen), join Cecil’s family for dinner during his break from organizing with the Black Panther Party in Oakland. Carol, flyly dressed, raises her arms- has armpit hair. She then proceeds to belched at the table while tackling death stares from Oprah’s character.  That whole charade was too laughable to me, and I guess only me- because the audience was pretty quiet during that scene. Maybe Daniels’ and Co. did some background research on feminism to counter what he originally thought about feminists- saw a couple of white women, and then figured oh! – black feminists of the time were just like white feminists dressed in leather clad! Black women, particularly Black women from the south,  were not afforded the experimental luxury- and safety that is needed while challenging patriarchal norms. I am sure that Angela Davis, Ida B. Wells, women of color from the Combahee River Collective, and countless others that were self defined feminists did not burp in old Black lady’s faces to prove their political resistance.  While white women scratched their armpits in newly discovered discomfort, and burped into the faces their World War 2 parents’ faces, Black Feminists like Angela Davis were in places like Germany writing dissertations on political philosophy.  What do I really mean by all this? NO BLACK FEMINIST HAD TIME TO BURP IN AN OLD BLACK LADY’S FACE. THERE WAS NO TIME FOR ALL OF THAT. In all serious, this aspect reminded me that a serious and complex discourse around the historical genealogy of women of color feminist politic in the United States is all too necessary, and maybe needs like 7 movies to really dig into it (starting with a film on Claudia Jones).

The last scene where Cecil was supposed to meet President Obama- and we did not actually get to see them meet, man SMDH. That still irritates me- we had to watch you, Cecil, deliver bribe money masked as donations to the general public on behalf of President Reagan, and hobble down the Presidential hallway to meet the president, but we could not see you shake President Obama’s hand? I mean isn’t the whole point of the movie to prove that your life was not in vain because of President Obama?

All sarcasm aside, this film does nothing to honor the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, nor the radical African diasporic genealogy that is Black August. In fact, I would argue that Daniels’ cashed in on the American ignorance of the Black Liberation struggle in regards to COINTELPRO and other societal tactics that destroyed the movement- by streamlining the Civil Rights Movement as an nationalistic project for equal liberation. WHATEVER.  Today, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant (stream “The Butler”, pay to see “Fruitvale Station”), Cece McDonald, and thousands of others explain and expose a faulted worship of the Civil Rights Movement. Films like this, although informative, do not push our realm of conceptualization of race politics in this country. We are all at a standstill, no one with common sense believes in a “post-racial” society, however there are no dominant discussions on how to mobilize around that notion.  Today, one can recognize that freedom rides should be taken to detention centers, where many are unfairly incarcerated, or school district meetings where working class children of color are confined 40 students to 1 teacher. Maybe films that tell a truth, that are provocative,  are just not welcomed subjects anymore in race politic world. Or maybe, just maybe writers like Daniels’ are too busy worrying about young men wearing belts to even allow themselves to create such a powerful statement.

I did appreciate the recognition and praise of Domestic Workers in US History, and wished the film would have dived more into domestic workers’ organizing. I did also appreciate the aesthetic of the film, they did a fantastic job of creating a time travel experience- I admired the lighting, I could have done without the fake news reports on those weird 1960’s televisions.

Upcoming film, “12 Years a Slave”- by Steve McQueen,  is supposed to heal my frustrations, quell my angst, and inspire me to be great. I’m sure if you are bothered by this film, it will do the same for you too.



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