"Why I was Against Lee Daniel’s The Butler, Before I was For it"

Jeeves - The White Valet / Butler

Most Americans know Hugh Laurie in character as Doctor Gregory House from the popular dramatic American series butler“House.”  But the British actor is probably best known in his native land for being one half of the Laurie-Fry/Fry-Laurie comedic duo (along with partner Stephen Fry), which has immersed itself for many years in making fun of the trifling upper classes in its comedy routines.  Among the most hysterical of their comedic incarnation was their collaboration with Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) as the bumbling Lord Blackadder in the series of the same name.  This was zany British comedy at its best, but their channeling of Bertie Wooster and his chevalier butler / valet, (or as Jeeves prefers, “a gentleman’s personal gentleman”) Jeeves was zany British comedy at its extreme best. 

Jeeves and Wooster were both characters of writer P.G. Wodehouse's imagination.  Of course being “terribly British,” Jeeves would be the first to point you to a distinction and to highlight the difference, in that, as a valet he was hired out only to the gentleman, but not to his entire household, as he would have been as a butler.  Beyond such ‘slight’ details however, Jeeves as a butler and Jeeves as a valet is a distinction without much of a difference. 

Both were men from the underclasses, yet smart, well cultured, great imitators of the upper crust, and sometimes even well read.  The valet and the butler were also both men of the finest etiquette and style who worked in service to nobility, wealth, and the upper classes.  Both were men whose job it was to ensure an atmosphere of equally fine etiquette, beauty, charm, and a certain “gentlemanly” protocol in all aspects of their master’s experiences.

While there might be variations in the social regards for butlers/valets, personal minders, etc., the general keeper of nobility’s etiquette and health and muse to royalty and wealth have long been a highly regarded and coveted role entrusted to men of high caliber.   With the bleeding of the Royal household in the aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales over a decade ago, we learned that the butler to His Royal Highness (HRS), Charles, Prince of Wales, performed services ranging from tasting the Prince’s toothpaste to holding the ‘closely-held’ pot next to HRS in the middle of the night when he was too lazy to crawl out of bed to see to his royal manly duties. 

But beyond European royalty however, the butler/valet has played much the same role of confidence keeper in varied cultures across the globe, including for American wealth – black and white.  First African American sports multi-millionaire, famed jockey, and three time Kentucky Derby winner Isaac (Ike) Murphy, hired himself a white valet/butler during the heights of his success in the 1880s.   But the role of the black butler in American history has always been a nuanced one, or at least a negatively stereotyped one.  So it is no surprise that for many African Americans real acceptation of a film promulgating the life of a black butler can only be truly so, if such a butler is in the service of black employers, thereby negating the idea of white servitude.

On The Issue of Butlers and Maids:  Aunt Jemima, Uncle Mose, and Rastus

butler2As is usual, in every aspect of American life, the difference is often in the color.  A “Malice-in-Wonderland” syndrome takes hold wherein up is down and in is out, while all previous assignations, meanings, and social status are relegated to different levels of significance, born of being black.  

In his book on African American collectibles and stereotypes, "Mammy and Uncle Mose," professor Kenneth W. Goings stated that, “In my imagination, I see Aunt Jemima not as a cook but as a fighter for freedom in the mold of Angela Davis or Shirley Chisolm.  Uncle Mose I imagine not as the faithful butler but as an activist and orator in the mold of Malcolm X, or of Medgar Evers.  Then I come back to reality and America in the 1990s and realize that Aunt Jemima would probably still be cooking and Uncle Mose serving, living their lives, as we all try to do, with dignity and self-respect.

So, for all of these reasons, the black butler has never known his white colleague Jeeves. He has never been in a position to be as "uppity" as to draw a distinction between a status of butler of valet.  Jeeves and he have never existed on the same planets, spoken to each other, or shared trade secrets.  As black men were generally not part of the cooking/butler tradition, given that their hard labor was more valued in the fields, most of our first images of the black butler hearkens back to that of Rastus, the old Cream of Wheat chef serving it up for the little white child and the massa’s cat, but absent any black children. 

The black butler in white servitude then came to be viewed with suspicion by many African Americans who had come to see him simply as the feminine version of Aunt Jemima.  We found ways to understand Aunt Jemima and the thousands of Mammies who spawned us, because though they had little choice in taking care of the man's household during the day, they still made the choice to take care of their own by raising them at nights.  But the black butler was the server of the man’s children.. but not his own. 

So it is not surprising that many people including myself was at first highly insulted at the thought of this movie about a black butler, especially on the heels of “The Help” not too long ago.  These are movies that incite white America into giddiness of the head, but which tend to induce a loathsome quality in the stomach of African Americans.  Who can forget “Driving Miss Daisy” which won 4 Oscars including Best Picture in 1989, the same year of Spike Lee’s near epic “Do The Right Thing” which barely got a nod in unsuccessful nominations only in the screenplay and supporting actor categories (for the white character).  

“I was against it before I was for it”

So since its summer release, I have refused to see this film out of a personal objection to spending my good butler4earned dollar to patronize movie making about a black man in domestic servitude to white men, albeit that they be Presidents of The United States of America.  Additionally, I have never been a great fan of the mushy characters played by Ms. Winfrey in past, nor have I been a fan of Mr. Daniel’s last stroll down Oscar Lane with the horrendous story of Precious, or of his previous dance with Monster’s Ball.   So there were ample reasons to keep me from even thinking of ever seeing this film for a thousand years.   

Yet I was eventually persuaded by a new Face book friend to withhold judgment and to go and see the film.  Convinced that she might have been in the clandestine employ of producer Lee Daniels, and working to get restive black men to venture into the theatre to see this movie, I took her up on her offer to refund my ticket if I did not like the film.  The unlikely offer of a refund was quite remote yet it added a certain weight to the pendulum of curiosity that had by then lodged itself into the back of my own mind.. 

At such point where I was able to channel the juror under a judge’s instructions to leave all pre-judgments at the door, I finally walked into a New York City theatre and watched the film.   Here I was, in an unbelievable moment, watching the Lee Daniel’s film that I had previously promised myself to never ever do.

In my immediate response to the persuasive friend, on seeing the film, I wrote, “While in the theatre I reflected on the persuasive power of the beautiful sister of bygone days.. when submission was but the only option for a brother.  Oh how nostalgia beckons.. even for a not yet middle age guy like me. Daniels owes you some royalties for the references dear.”  I meant every word. 

So I will start this by reviewing the things I that did not particular like about this film before giving a read out on my final conclusion.

Things I did not like (from the small to the large)  

For more than an hour watching the film, I singed in a politically correct-sexist revulsion when I saw the character of Cecil Gaines aged for over twenty years while his wife had not aged a day.  I was thinking that this was such sexist and politically correct hogwash while wondering if it could have been out of Miss Winfrey’s desire not to show wrinkles on screen.  Then suddenly, as if the film was being shot simultaneously as being shown and with a direct pipeline from my brains to the production crew, the film arrived at the scene of the barbecue around 2008 when Barack Obama was running, and there we saw an aged wife to Cecil Gaines.  Then in short order the funny and poignant scene where his wife and life's partner now breathing with the support of oxygen, questioned the sense of her grand-daughter’s name and concluded that she was in deed a “pretty little thang” after all, but only after her husband successfully convinced her that the baby girl did in fact resemble her, whereupon she then suddenly died.  By this time, I had been relieved of all earlier notion of politically correct-sexist revulsion and graciously in love with the Mrs. Gaines myself.

The discussion with Reagan about civil rights

Alan Rickman in character as Ronald Reagan at one point questioned his probity on the issue of civil rights with the butler Cecil Gaines.  Both the wording and the presentation of the scene seemed contrived and appeared solely as a veer into political correctness.  It is not believable that this happened and if it did in real life, then the setting and presentation of the scene was quite incomplete.

Say it like you mean it

The dedication to “those who fought in the civil rights movement” that flashed across the screen at the end of the film felt as if its inclusion was the result of a gun pointed to the film editor’s head during the final cut, or as if this was just a caption required to somehow maintain the PG or G rating of the film.  The film did not feel like a tribute to anyone who fought or died in any movement.  To be even sanguinely authentic, such a tribute might have included the scrolling of some of the names of the heroes – alive and dead – before the rolling of the next set of credits.  This is especially so, given that this film was released to coincide with the 50th March on Washington and the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombings in Birmingham Alabama.  Additionally, this becomes an even more aloof declaration when considering that the film took a patent position (swipe) against a large segment of those who fought died or were jailed, imprisoned, or exiled as part of the movement for civil rights.  

In every insurrection, manifestation, or suffrage by suppressed minorities for independence or equal recognition under law in every country within the last century (Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Basque ETA, etc.) an element of amnesty for actions committed in the battlefield, was always apart of the reconciliation process... EXCEPT IN AMERICA.  Much of those who resisted affirmatively spent the rest of their lives in exile and on the FBI's Most Wanted Lists.  A dry dedication by a film which spent much of the previous 90 minutes painting the efforts of some of these brave souls as useless, is in itself a useless exercise. 

Casting

butler10It has become a little tiring to see Terrence Howard playing yet another morally deficient and tragic character.  The problem is that this incredibly talented actor does so well in such portrayals that we may get to the point of not expecting to see him playing anything else but a pimp, wife beater, hustler, numbers runner, etc.

On the other extreme Lenny Kravitz was stone faced out of place against the fluidity of the seasoned Academy winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr.  Kravitz appeared in the entire movie as if with his own miniature proctologist performing probe-insertion out of view of the audience.  It was not just his veins that protruded, but as well, his eyes that bulged ever so consistently.  

Either All or Nothing!

In a film as such, the use of art as a reflective tool of any significant movement-period of history will forever be deficient in that it can never be complete or all consuming.  And so it was with The Butler.  Bit reflections of different periods in the struggle for civil rights were played out against the backdrop of estrangement between a son’s activism and a conformist father’s fears for his son’s safety and his son’s life in the south, having been witness to his own father’s death at the hands of the plantation owner who had raped his mother in plain view.  This theme was carried through the entire film up the poignant tearjerker moment when a retired and consciously evolved father joined (and hugged) his son at a protest against the apartheid regime in South Africa. 

Though well executed in many ways and superbly acted by Forrest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, Gooding, and others, the film nonetheless followed the age-old sterile narrative fed to most of us since, during, and after the civil rights movement, which is that the choice for African Americans during the struggle was solely one of either “violence” or “non-violence.”  The fact is that this was the lie of the century that still unfortunately, guides much of post-civil rights thinking in black America.

By framing the civil rights movement as such (no doubt a dictate from the white supporters), moderate black leaders of the movement painted the more progressive thinkers (who brought forth proportional alternative ideas and responses to white tyranny) into the corner of “violent radicals”.  From figures like Malcolm X to many of the leading Black Panthers party members, much of what they preached and brought to the table were simply appropriate defensive strategies to combat the wanton tyranny being perpetrated against African Americans. 

But so pervasive had this idea of ‘non-violence’ (Gandhi’s passive resistance) become, at a certain point the black personality who was not singing “We Shall Overcome,” would soon be deemed a ‘radical’ to be marked for extinction by Hoover and his men and also by the very black sages and oracles whose deal struck with the gods of ‘moderation and integration’ meant abject mollification or swift extinction of those within their own midst who did not 'get with the program.' 

In the face of violence and the internal terrorism of its fellow citizens and government (COINTELPRO), we are told that black resistance and affirmation of both civil and natural rights (a la Thomas Paine) was only possible through the expropriation of the principles of the brown Hindu from another land to the black and largely ‘Christian’ situation in America.   

The sirens of “non-violence” told us then and tell us now that anything other than passive resistance to tyranny and butler6mayhem would have been considered violence, and subject to brutal put down through ruthless means such as death or imprisonment by the white power structure.

And so it was with this movie, which at times veered from art into an opinion-shaping propaganda piece worthy of a 6 pm (EST) viewing of MSNBC’s "Politics Nation," or as I tend to call it, “outFOXed.”  You see, the devil can hardly just walk through the gates of heaven to seduce and corrupt you, but he can certainly co-opt an angel into do his bidding.  The thought that comes to mind on watching such a film is therefore the decided need to understand in whose ultimate interest might it be to embed such messages of repudiating strong activism in favor of conformity.

The audience of The Butler was hence presented with the false choice of African America's acceptance of either the Dark Knights or the Princes of Darkness – one to be embraced as the savior of blackness in its wishful and delusional “post-racial” world, and the other to be rejected as a dangerous radical with “no class” and no future but a life of criminality, but even more importantly, one who is an embarrassment in the face of a white America which will stand in perpetual judgment.. of African America.  

In this sense, the ridiculous belch at the table by the Angela Davis-like character and the whole repudiation of the black power movement was at best a petty shots taken by a black filmmaker, maybe in an effort to mollify the expected white audience who might see the movie as well as the expected white audience who will sit in judgment at the Globes and at the Oscars.  Without being hypocritical in any attempt to paint Mr. Dainiels in poor light here, we understand certain realities of the world in which we live.  And we also understand (regrettably) what sells.  But where art takes on the role of advocate, the question again bounces as to whose benefit.  It was Dr. Du Bois who had first talked about the African American being "born of a veil, gifted with a second sight in the American World."  According to him, "this second sight yields no true self-consciousness but let him see himself through the revelation of the other world.  It is a peculiar sensation this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity."  So why use a 2013 film to stake such a position against one side of a movement that has largely faded into obscurity anyway, but for the sublime message of "post-raciality" that is being pushed by liberals and conservatives alike.  

From there, it was a downhill ‘juxtapositioning’ of good versus evil:  The radical sister was so deluded by the Panther movement that she was not even capable of giving love or of being in love with Lewis Gaines.   And of course the implicit subtext to Lewis’ story was that of a son whose path to radicalization led him to disrespect his dedicated parents, to waste his time loving a slag, to passing much of his college years in jail, to skipping his patriot/hero brother’s funeral and let us not forget, he only found a viable future once he turned away from radical ideas.  

In other words, there was little that was beautiful in Lewis Gaines’ life once he flirted with the radical activism.  In fact, regardless of his final lot in life, he was already served up to us as the near infidel traitor who was “fighting against his country while his hero brother died fighting for his country.” This piece of the script could not have been better written by an actual COINTELPRO operative.  Regardless of how one might view his brother who died in Vietnam, it was hard to imagine Lewis Gaines’ absence from his brother’s funeral by choice, in spite of how difficult it might have been (though the reasons weren’t fully explored, it is assumed he was not in jail at the time or it would have been mentioned).

Even where casual reference is made to one of the poster boys of today’s ‘Dark Knights,’ John Lewis, it is such a feeble reference that I am sure that other figures such as Julian Bond, whose life could have added greater depth to any character in such a film, must have felt happy at being ignored in this wanna-be-fictional-docu-drama.

And that is the main problem that I had with the film.  It was at times, a deviation from art reflecting on history to propaganda piece reflective of a specific agenda.   One cannot put a half-fictionalize version of any aspect of the civil rights movement on film without an expectation of critical analysis.  And one cannot openly and retrospectively take a position on the different approaches during the struggle, from the armchair under a bountiful apple tree of today, which was well shaken during the struggle by others imprisoned or long dead, so that we all can freely enjoy our apple a day. 

The Marketing of a “Butler’s” Story

butler8The marketing of the movie as that of the story of a butler in servitude to several President, cheapened the art of the film, was reductive of the majestic performances by Forrest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Terrance Howard, and Cuba Gooding Jr. (among the household names), others, and was a simplification of a plot powerful enough to stand on its own without the implication of servitude in negritude.  Yet as we have acknowledged above, this is what still sells. 

I fully recognize the desire of the filmmaker and others associated for “cross over” appeal to ensure box-office and Academy success.  But recognize as well the irony of this piece of advocacy for the side of “non-violence” in the dream of achieving equality.  In order to achieve a “cross over” (or equal) appeal (i.e. attract white audiences), it has to sell and market itself as a story of servitude in subservience.   In other words, the film had to be “sambo’d” up in order to achieve (equalize) a certain level of box-office and award seasonal success. 

 

Why you might want to go see The Butler

There are several fine features of this film, which left me bereft of any envisioned regrets of seeing yet another “Mammy/Butler” movie, to which we have so become accustomed.

The story of Cecil Gaines’ struggle to protect his family and his fears for his son’s activism in the south, against the backdrop of the racial tyranny that had taken his father’s life in front of his very own eyes, is a powerful one.  The interaction of Cecil Gaines with his surroundings is one of class, humility, and poignancy all the way.  His relationship with his wife and especially her relationship with him, was a beautiful mark in black movie making of the day, of which we have become unaccustomed.

There was enough substance and form in the story of Cecil Gaines’s life to hold anyone with a soul.  His work (and place of work) simply added power to the complexity and conflicts of gaining consciousness while in the service and company of the most powerful men who were empowered to change things for his people.  Cecil came into anecdotal knowledge of the challenges abound, in and around the White House, while spawning a profound consciousness on his own, outside of its walls and within the world in which he was living.  This was not the story of a butler.  It was the story of a man, the story of a wife, the story of two children with diverging ideologies, and more importantly, it was the story of a family.  His place of work and the period of time simply add context with which to frame the challenges of the Gaines family.

The quality of hurt and the dignity of a man, shone through the butler Cecil Gaines, who while not of formal butler7education or progressive thoughts, understood nonetheless that the bravest and most important role that a man can play is first to take care of his family, in spite of the vicissitudes of his journey over the continuum of a period of time in the country's dark history.  In alluding to professor Goings’ earlier statements, Cecil Gaines went about his work and his life with the utmost dignity, and at some point even showing the type of braveness, not seen in today’s leaders of politics or business.  Recalling my immediate online posting on seeing the film, “There were many Cecil Gaines in my family and they were all men that I grew up to be proud of.”

He was an intelligent man who had the acumen to know that 20 years after his first attempt at advocacy for equal pay for the African American staff at the White House, that he would need the coverage of the President of the United States, before re-addressing the issue to the head of staffing.  So on being rebuffed by the head of staffing that second time around, with the typical, “Well I guess you will no longer be working here” response, the crafty butler who had already anticipated that, calmly informed the head of staff to the following effect, “I figured that that would have been your response, in which case the President wants me to tell you to take up the issue with him.”  He had gone in to fight for equal pay for the African American staff, having already obtained the approval from the President of the United States.  The head of staffing, was the only one not in on the decision sanctioned by the President.

The Stars

butler9At the outset of the film, one character reminded the other of the two faces of blackness in America – “the face that we are and the face we show to the white folks.”  Again, a factor in Dr. Du Bois' allusion above.  But something deep within me felt that Oprah Winfrey played this role so well because she indeed took a certain liberty in letting out “the face that she is deep down” to roam a little.  She was super sexy (a foxy brown with a mature body), fluid, soft, courageous (would not have her boy disrespect his father in his house), and she certainly reminded many of us of our parents before organically modified foods, diabetes, heart disease, and the ugly weave.  Their weaves were the bushy Afros which said "black and I'm proud."  My most loved aspect of Ms. Winfrey's character was her portrayal of a trully fine sister - judged by our standards of what we consider "fine," and not some Holywood projection.

With this performance, she has not only gained a new cadre of black male fans, but I believe that Ms. Winfrey has also managed to herald in a new sexy, supportive, and strong model of the African American couples and the black wife which existed decades before Cliff and Claire and who existed proudly as part of the emerging blue-collar class of African Americans in the 1960s and 1970s.   For those of us who remembered, our parent’s friends used to come over on Friday or Saturday nights.  There was music, cigarette smoking, loud laughter, hearty discussions, food, drinking, and maybe the occasional card or board games going on downstairs while we were carted off to bed. I would expect that she will be recognized at awards time, and deservedly

As for Forrest Whitaker, it would have been too easy to have started this piece by urging anyone to go see The Butler because of his starring role.   That would also have been an unfair understating of the roles of the other excellent actors in this film.  But the truth is that the actor with the Oscar for his brilliant portrayal of Idi Amin in “Last King of Scotland” did even better than portraying butler Cecil Gaines in this latest incarnation.  He became Cecil Gaines.  As he aged under the props of the make-up artists, so perfected he the character of Cecil Gaines over time – astute, classy, reflective, courageous, conscious, and ever evolving, that we are in his head, seeing the formation of his thoughts and in his body, feeling the crumbling of his limbs with the passage of time.  

This performance reminds us that Mr. Whitaker is simply one of the greatest actors of our times - black or white.  Who cares if he is nominated for an Oscar or wins one for this role (of course he does).  We know he will have put in one of the best performances of the year.  

The surprising chemistry between Ms. Winfrey and Mr. Whitaker was extraordinary.  The backup humor and again, the ‘fluidity’ of the supporting roles played by Cuba Gooding Jr. Clarence Williams III, Adriane Lenox, Pernel Walker and others, also worked well. The usual louche of a character played by Terrence Howard was authentic enough as a side distraction.

Conclusion

At some point in his banishment, even King Sisyphus must have deluded himself into thinking that, “this time, thebutler3 stone will finally roll over and come to rest at the top of this hill.”  Odysseus, in his long journey back from Ithaca, had the constant hand of gods such as Athena and Hermes, among others, to guide him.  For Cecil Gaines, seeing his son off to Fisk University in the south (as opposed to Cecil’s preferred Howard in the north), and then witnessing said son’s later flirtation with black power and movements such as the Black Panther, gave rise to his Sisyphean period of estrangement within his ‘tight-nit’ family, which included fears for his first son’s life in the deep south, the loss of his second son to war in Vietnam, and the potential permanent severing of ties with his first born as a result of diverging ideologies at the height of the battle-hot civil rights movement.  

Cecil Gaines had no gods or dispatches from Mount Olympus to lend him a guiding hand.  But at his side throughout this continuum of time and along the quantity of his experiences, was his wife and biggest supporter, his rock, and his partner in the family project that they had jointly constructed.  She shared the pain of loss and estrangement with her husband, though in different ways.  She was protective of him, as she loved him and struggled with her own demons.  Her death at that late stage must have been yet another moment of Sisyphean proportions for the butler Cecil Gaines.

 

Author, Paul Sinclair is the curator for and owner of EalyMaysArtworks.com and freelance writer on art, and African American historical acheivements in Paris. 

Add a comment

Welcome to Ealy Mays Artworks

Celebration of over 150 years of Black Literary and Artistic development in Paris

Here you will find the works of one of the most prolific African American artists. Based in Paris, France, this selection includes current masterpieces as well retrospectives from a body of over 30 years as an ethnic artist painting in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe. Your choice of paintings, prints, posters, postcards, puzzles, memorabilia, T-shirts, collectibles, accessories,and more, is only a click away. Read more

It is the spectator and not life, that really mirrors art”  The Picture of Dorian Gray …Oscar Wilde

Newsletter Signup

Stay informed on our latest news, exhibits,events and more

Not Enough. Want to stay informed? Follow me now...