Fear and Excitement for this year’s Political Biopic 'The Butler'

Lee Daniels, the man who brought us the Oscar nominated Precious in 2009, and 2004’s The Woodsman, released the theatrical trailer for political biopic The Butler earlier this month. Due to hit UK cinemas in August, this epic excavation into recent US political history reportedly cost a 25-million-dollar budget.Was this great financial effort to produce a damning and revelatory revision of history, or just ‘business as usual’, politically and industrially speaking?

The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines, based on real-life Eugene Allen, a White House butler from the Eisenhower years to Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981. This trailer reveals a few elements of the film’s narrative, allusions and drama, some of which excite a left-wing film viewer, as well as other elements which provide pause….

You see, the film appears to feature actors famed for their anti-government and anti-American stances: stars like Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda especially, who are still tragically attacked by mainstream American media for their criticism of United States- or in Redgrave’s case, Israeli- foreign policy and regime. The billing of these two greats together, especially in a political film, gets me all excited in my film-fan pants. Google ‘Julia 1977’, to see why. Not long ago the inclusion of such outspoken leftists, as well as simply the film’s racial make-up (African-American cameos include Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, Forest Whitaker, Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding Jr. and David Oyelowo, among others) would suggest The Butler might be critical of US history. This is because, until previously, blackness and the American government had been emotively opposed.

But in 2013 the US occupies a new age in the relationship between race and the White House (The Butler’s central thematic), as now its inhabitants (the First family) are black. It becomes hard to ignore, given the thematic connection of blackness-and-the-presidency, the significance of Winfrey’s first acting role since Beloved in 1998.* Winfrey’s connections to the Obama family, rather than administration, and indeed she and Barack’s personal friendship are referenced publically. Obama and Winfrey share humble beginnings to their fairy-tale biographies but are notably, now, two of the most powerful African-Americans alive.

(*Winfrey is credited with earning a deciding approximately one million votes for Obama in the 2008 midterm elections- only one recent example of what is termed the ‘Oprah Effect’**)

(**Google it)

This generation’s administration and power seems to belong- of course, very partially, and some would say, illusorily so-  to those that were always oppressed in America. Blackness, which White America oppressed using the tool of government, inhabits that government today. Now comfortably in Obama's second term, America is used to its mixed-race President, and American cultural markers have shifted accordingly. The racists for whom the US government had previously provided a tool and comfort, now show themselves as unco-operative and anti-government vigilantes. On the other side those for racial equality in America find themselves defending government. This all has effects on African American cultural identity. 

We are at a pivotal moment, it would seem, in the mainstream regard of black people and blackness. It's interesting that this change in the way black people are perceived in normative arenas like Washington or Hollywood, has been determined by one human figure, the current POTUS (president of the…), Barack Obama.

Now how does this relate to Columbia’s trailer for The Butler, I hear you recall. The Butler, I anticipate, means to cement an image of black men in mainstream Hollywood cinema, an image that falls at the end of an enormously problematic history. The history of images of the black (man, especially) in Hollywood is a staple of representational studies. Beginning infamously with D. W. Griffiths’ Birth of A Nation in 1915, which featured blacks raping white women and which celebrated its premiere with a 50,000-people-strong KKK march on Capitol Hill- Can you say terrifying?!- and continuing to the present, you can trace a lineage of images of black men in Hollywood.

Placed at the end of this centurion journey- a century of cinema and institutionalised racism towards blacks in America- is what Scott and Dargis dub, ‘Obama cinema’. Writing this January in the NYTimes they state, ‘From the class striving of Sidney Poitier’s everyman in the classic film "A Raisin in the Sun" to Will Smith’s messianic loners in recent titles like "I Am Legend," the movies have ennobled, consecrated, glorified, immortalized and, most important, normalized the figure of the black man.’

But this Obama cinema, and the figure of the POTUS himself, relates to the two types of black men seen in early cinema. Two tropes were used to categorise the earliest representations of black men, and their residue can be traced in the way black men are perceived today. These came from the few – frequently offensive- roles white Hollywood producers created for them. With colloquial authenticity they could be described in the following flavours:

Type-option-1: The ‘house-n****r’

This is the Uncle Tom or 'Mammie' role of the servant who delights in waiting upon their white protagonist counterpart. Always pleased to help, entertain, and be mistreated with what can horrifically be identified as a fond-racism. More modern examples that may be accused of these attributes include Sidney Poitier’s roles and the character of Carlton Banks in the wildly popular TV show The Fresh Prince. (Interestingly, the Banks’ own butler Geoffrey has attributes of each type- I’ll leave that analysis to you!) This type work narratively as ‘helpers’, ever grateful for their proximity to their White master.

Type-option-2: The ‘uppity-n****r’

This type groups together all blacks who resisted oppression, even if just in their sentiment towards the status quo. Also falling into this camp are the early common typographies of the black rapist and the criminal. These were characters that White America feared, and were used narratively as villains or obstacles. Through this type, black Americans were portrayed as problematic people, angry without good cause. The creation of this stereotype is still used today to silence blacks, especially women.

Since the birth of these distinct ideas, representations have either tried to navigate or avoid the two, and their successes and failings judged critically by black audiences. Both of these types are on display in the trailer- did anyone catch that Gaines' father seems to have been shot for his unwillingness to submit?- so The Butler seemingly stages the two paths available to black American men in the mid-20th century.

What concerns me most about The Butler’s trailer is the narrative it evokes. A trailer;s narrative can be misleading or misrepresentative of the film’s story. Perhaps scenes of conflict only feature in the trailer due to their quality and the bulk of actors demanding representation. But, reading the trailer’s narrative as a taster of The Butler, in the dichotomy of wilful servant versus the path of angry resistance, does this multi-million dollar biopic criticise political resistance?

Let’s take a closer look at the information at hand.. so I can explain my worries.

There is no question that The Butler will glorify a position of subservient blackness. But I worry that it will subsequently demonise the radical position of the Black Panthers***, as suggested in the trailer.

[***A little on why this matters… For me this is a worrying political statement as it criticises collective action, as well as criticising those who question and go against the government, even if –as was the case in the history portrayed- the government lags behind the people in its continued withholding of rights from certain groups.]

It is impossible to know at this stage whether the film attributes any of the achievements of the civil rights movement to the Black Panthers’ activism. But if we look at the first poster released by Columbia, and its tagline especially-

One quiet voice can ignite a revolution.

--the film overtly suggests a preferable, comparatively more dignified, path to revolution, that involves working with those in power rather than demanding equality in an unequal system.

Another look at the poster and one can identify the opposing groups – of the faithful and the resistant- as the butler looks out at the protesting hoards from the trappings of the White House windows, his hands behind his back, and himself refusing the focus suggested in the title, as his back faces the potential audience.

butler poster.jpg

In the released trailer, the divisive nature of black political life in the mid-twentieth-century is demonstrated. Oprah Winfrey, as the butler’s wife, is seen reprimanding her Panther son with a slap, seemingly in response to disrespect of his father’s subservience. Given the aforementioned ‘Oprah Effect’, this reads as a clear indictment of the radical panthers (the world’s most influential black woman putting her son straight for not respecting subservient blacks, reads as a smack to us all: the demand to respect history’s subservient blacks.)

To the film’s credit, and to my relief, The Butler does not appear to shy from depicting the truly horrific history of institutionalised racism in US and under the gaze of, or at the hands of, the US government. In a brief few seconds we see police attacking blacks using hoses and dogs, the KKK attacking a bus in Alabama, a bombing, and JFK himself asserting the treatment of blacks to be worse than White America had realised. It also seems to show the harm done by the oppression of blacks on the black family, and racism’s divisive effects between people who share an enemy (and who could benefit from solidarity).

The film certainly seems relevant to America’s current administration, and relates to a ‘cinema of Obama’: Columbia reportedly swept up Allen’s life-rights in November 2008, the very month of Obama’s Presidential win (before the film was bought by The Weinstein Company.) The film’s IMDB page states Obama features in the film, in one of his already numerous big-screen portrayals, by actor Orlando Eric Street. Yes, I worry The Butler will follow the disappointing path of the current POTUS on black issues (Obama has failed to quell the War on Drugs, which disproportionately jails most of America's young black men and ruins black communities by force). That is to say, will The Butler achieve a 'black-washing' of a political status quo, assimilating critical politics into commodification, as has been accused of the Obama administration?

Does this trailer suggest a happy and Presidential end to this horrible history? Does all this mean the message of The Butler will be that America’s racism was overwhelmingly harmful, but that, due to the subservience of some and a great president, is now absolved? Does this mean the film’s true-story-influenced verisimilitude will take us to a happy ending? A false future where because a black man lives in the White House (and in the main house, this is), his government no longer harms the lives of Black Americans disproportionately?! I'll be in the Camden Odeon on August 17th, barring any delays to release, to find out.