8.16.2013

Open Mic Night: "The Butler" (2013)

Lee Daniels’ The Butler” hits theaters nationwide today. The film is based on the true story of Eugene Allen, an African-American butler who served eight different presidents over the course of a 34-year career. Allen’s story is one of servitude set against the backdrop of years of political change, and it represents the unique view that black service workers have had at the White House since its construction. In the book “The Black History of the White House,” American University history professor Clarence Lusane outlines some of this story. From the hundreds of black enslaved workers who helped build the White House to the countless others who have toiled over the years in its back rooms and kitchens, Lusane lifts up the veil on decades of untold history. I spoke to Lusane about why this moment is an important one.

Why is the history of black labor in the White House important to tell—especially at a time when we do have a black president?

I think that’s exactly the reason why. When Barack Obama was running for president, there were of course lots of stories about what it would mean if he won. But what was missing in almost all of the reports was the longer history of African-Americans who had actually not only worked in the White House, but actually had built the White House—people who were slaves as well as people who were free. So part of my motivation was to give a context for the significance of Obama coming into the White House. He wasn’t the first African-American and, in fact, when you look at the history of the White House and its relationship with black people, it gives you a lot of information about the history of race in the country.

...What else should we know about this history?

There were other black butlers at the White House who existed for many years. There was a butler called Alonso Fields who worked there for more than two decades. He wrote a book called “My 21 Years at the White House.” There was another black butler there named John Strickland who worked there for 43 years. And then there were women who worked there, principally as maids. One very famous one, Lilian Rodgers Parks, wrote a book called “My 30 Years Backstairs at the White House.” And so there are some published works that give you at least a sense of what people’s daily work life was like at the White House. What’s notable is that most of those books tend to be very apolitical. Part of working in the White House was to be discreet, to basically be invisible. … Regardless of what kind of craziness is going on politically right in front of you, you don’t have an opinion. So they’re making all kinds of racist statements and whatever, and your job is to know what your job is. But of course that creates a kind of dissonance because you’re watching this. What comes across in these books is that dissonance where people witness history being made but could not intervene and could not even comment on it at the time except that they later wrote about it in their memoirs. (Source)
I don't know about y'all, but here's what I think:

When it comes to subject matter like black butlers in white houses, I want documentaries.  I want well-researched, well-written documentaries chronicling these historical characters, repleted with interviews and commentary by members of modern brown academia.  And as for those memoirs listed above, those aren't meant to be mined by Hollywhite for pain porn and mutli-million dollar paychecks.  They simply need to be on mandatory reading lists for schools all across America - end of story.

Now, where 21st Century film and entertainment are concerned...when I pay the ludicrous amount of money it costs to go see a film these days, I better see Idris Alba being large in and in charge, manning a Jaeger and taking out a Kaiju by his damn self. I better see Chiwetel Ejiofor play a futuristic government operative who's weapon of choice is a friggin' sword. I want to see Gina Torres say, "Fuck it," and rush headlong into a pack of crazed, cannibalistic Reavers with nothing but a damn blade. I want to see Naomie Harris rescue (a sweaty, shirtless) Rain 2-3 times as they stay one step ahead of a bad-ass clan of ninjas.

I need to be entertained, energized, and empowered by what's going on around me in the present day and in the endless possibilities of the future.

But that's just me.  How about you?

17 comments:

  1. “And as for those memoirs listed above, those aren't meant to be mined by Hollywhite for pain porn and mutli-million dollar paychecks. They simply need to be on mandatory reading lists for schools all across America - end of story.”

    As we’ve seen in Texas and Highland Park when white administrators have their way, black history is either discarded to the trash, or erased from this nation’s narrative altogether. What with academy voters being nearly 94% white and 77% male, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone from the cast got a nod. We’re often recognized for playing Butlers, Maids/Nannies… Tragic Mulattoes, Magic Negros and Jezebels by the academy, so I don’t see how this film will change anything. Had it been a Spielberg film, the plot would have focused on the white actors with The Butler’s narrative reduced to mere footnotes.

    White people tend to gravitate towards film that portray them in a positive light, whether its saving the world, kicking ass (while striving against incredible odds) or just being noble. Painful bookmarks from The Butler may only serve to drive whites away in droves, whereas films like Lincoln, Emperor, The Avengers 2, or The Hunger Games: Catching Fire will draw whites to the box-office like flies to a carcass. Just as troubling is the historical disconnect of how we got from The Butler to a Sitting Black President in our young, yet every February the emphasis is placed on Martin Luther King, while black history (as a whole) is circumscribed to just a few actors. During this film’s run whites will engage in debates/dialogues about race (as this movie will no doubt generate), but they’ll do it as long as Their opinions remain central to the argument, and as long as Whiteness remains the norm after the conversation is over.

    When it comes to subject matter like black butlers in white houses, I want documentaries. I want well-researched, well-written documentaries chronicling these historical characters, repleted with interviews and commentary by members of modern brown academia.

    I agree, our stories are best told within the framework of Documentary, where we not only have control over its content, but with its dissemination as well.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I just realized something. Lee Daniels is the same house slave who gave Nicole Kidman hell because she refused to use the n-word in the Paperboy out of respect to the fact that she has a black son.

    The one time white folks get it right and house negroes wanna show their ass.

    And I wouldn't be too sure about the Butler framing whites in less than a flattering light. As 42 is any indication, they will still come out looking good in their racism.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I just realized something. Lee Daniels is the same house slave who gave Nicole Kidman hell because she refused to use the n-word in the Paperboy out of respect to the fact that she has a black son.

      He did what?????

      Delete
  3. This from, Entertainment Weekly:

    Looks like I spoke out of turn. My apologies.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. *sigh*

      Does anyone else miss Forest Whitaker as a streetwise samurai?

      Delete
    2. This fan boy site is a regular haunt for white males. You need only browse through the content to know this. When trying to gauge white reaction to the movie I figured most felt the way these commenters felt.

      Carl_Fredricksen:
      "The Bulter" was a HORRIBLE movie, a poor attempt to rewrite history, filled with tons of inaccuracies. Also, gotta love the timing of Oprah's bullsh!t rac!sm claim (publicity-stunt) right before her movie comes out. NEVER recommend this clearly fictitious film...”

      Hunjee:
      “agreed damn monkey movie, reminded me of congo.”

      Notice in the thread many won’t even acknowledge the fact that The Butler won the box office, instead they cast aspersions towards Kickass for not being a better movie. The few that did comment on the movie were more akin to what I figured white reaction to be. Twenty-five million is not a bad opening for a movie considering all the mainstream movies it beat out, but if the narrative is anything like 'Respectable Negroes' describes it, namely:
      "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," then I can see why whites spent their money on it. Having not seen the movie what I gleaned from the trailer was, whites behaving badly, so this is why I thought many whites would avoid it.

      Delete
  4. As a hitman he was a cold… calculating killing machine with a code of ethics. Loved him in that movie.
    His every move governed by the warrior code of the samurai. Even the way he handled his gun held symbolic meaning- as if he was wielding a sword. Moreover little miss Pearline (Camille Winbush) was cute as a button. Loved her in Eraser when Arnold Schwarzenegger falls from the sky in a malfunctioning parachute. I especially liked his interaction with the French ice-cream man.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I saw bits of that movie..it was cool.

      Delete
  5. You know I remember the time when black movies was good and when they turned to crap. Black Movies now just went from cool and deep to "Boyz in the Hood" clones to House negro.

    It reminds me when I was in school, I've always wondered why in those movies that you don;t see black people fighting the KKK or the white-snob like in Rosewood. Or a something fro the young adults to look up to. (Blankman will always be better than Kick-Ass) Why do movies have to show black people as the hood, the servant or the passive? Why those things?

    Why do movies like Rosewood, Blade, Blankman, Deep Space Nine is forgotten, yet movies like these are celebrated?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Lee Daniels has some serious internalized racism issues. I suggest people stay far far away from his movies. I still can't get the bitter taste of Monster's Ball out of my mouth.
    AC

    ReplyDelete
  7. I'm with you on the documentaries thing. I haven't seen a really good one in years; and that includes the time before we got rid of cable. Everything is fishing boats, and bugs, and trucks. Hardly anything about history, let alone non-white history.

    We're actually seeing the movie today, I'll have something to say about it then.

    ReplyDelete
  8. "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."

    ~ We Are Respectable Negroes

    ReplyDelete
  9. If anybody is interested in documentaries that showcase Black people as real, 3-dimensional beings that offered a LOT to the world as a whole, check out the Hidden Colors series. Hidden Colors 1 & 2 are EXCELLENT (which is an understatement) documentaries about the GLOBAL influence by Black people. Both are available on DVD.

    ReplyDelete
  10. One of my favorite documentaries that deals with blackness and race is called "Secret Daughter." It was on PBS in the late 90's. I highly recommend it. If you can't find info, let me know.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Ok. I didn't hate it, but it really was the latest in the long line of "feelgood racial movies like The Help, 42,and that gawd awful clint eastwood movie about Nelson Mandela (on that note, who's going to see the new one staring your guy?). These films use their Protagonists as mere props and seem more concerned about the white characters' journeys and being ~inspired~, than the character the title is actually referring to. It really sucks because this moive had SO MUCH POTENTIAL! What was going on with oprah's drinking? could we have seen that scene with the son helping her out? LC couldn't burst into song at any point? might we have seen these kitchens? why were the sickle cell clinics not mentioned? was there really not enough room? you could show us the president on the toilet and twelve different ones finding more ways to tell Cecil about how he "changed their hearts"; but no more screentime for the family and friends?

    ReplyDelete
  12. I need to be entertained, energized, and empowered by what's going on around me in the present day and in the endless possibilities of the future.

    Same here, but we all know we won't get that kind of entertainment from a white male dominated entertainment industry that continues to see whiteness as green. And Lee Daniels is Hollywood's robot programmed with enough disdain about blackness to crank out "Monster's Ball" and "Precious". With his help, Hollywood retains their stereotypes and racial tropes in their "movies".

    ReplyDelete
  13. I enjoyed the movie. To me it mostly depicted the white people as sociopaths that black people are forced to deal with to survive.

    ReplyDelete

This blog is strictly moderated. Everyone is now able to comment again, however, all Anonymous posts will be immediately deleted. Comments on posts more than 30 days old are generally dismissed, so try to stay current with the conversations.