Like many of you, I was blessed to see Lee Daniel’s The Butler this weekend. Fantastic film, and talk about star power. I won’t give a full, or traditional review of it here. What I will do, however, is offer some things that I noticed in the film which are subversive to the history lessons many of us were likely taught in grade school. I agree with Henry Louis Gates when he notes that the result that we want to come from the proverbial “conversation on race” won’t come about until we change what is written in our school textbooks. When we decide to change the way we learn about history and about race, then we can actually have a conversation about it – one that is productive and enduring. Here are some things that I noticed in the film that history books should add:
1. The 1920s weren’t “roaring” for everybody.
In the film’s opening, set in ’26 or ’27, we are introduced to a young Cecil Gaines being taught to pick cotton by his father just before he watches the overseer take his mother away into the shed. Soon after, when his father confronts the overseer, his father is shot dead right before everyone’s eyes. It plays like a scene out of Roots, or for the most contemporary audiences, Django Unchained. It reminds us upfront that this film is going to break apart those rose colored glasses and upturn a few notions of Americana that we have grown accustomed to over the decades. Yes, over 50 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, black folks were still picking cotton and getting raped and shot while ”other people” were out chasing Bonnie and Clyde and boo-hooing over the Depression.
2. Even in the 80s, blatant racism still existed in the White House.
Over the span of at least 10 years, we see Cecil ask for a raise twice in the film citing that the “white help” makes much more money than does the “black help” at the White House and they perform the same work. He also notes that the blacks working there were barred from promotions or raises. Although the laws and the nation was changing, the policies of the “master’s big white house” stayed the same. The scenes in the White House are parallel to the scene in the plantation house. Although the slavemaster’s widow (plated by Vanessa Redgrove) makes it seem like life in the house will be better, in reality, Cecil faces just as much racism as he did in the field. He doesn’t get the violent, in your face evil. He is force fed the vile racism that becomes ingrained in one’s psyche and shapes the way he behaves for the rest of his life. His position as a butler in the White House seems a lot better, but it actually is pretty much the same thing as the plantation. The racism at the WH isn’t as overt as the racism we see Louis (his son) encounter, but it’s all the same paint on a more expansive portrait. Cecil can’t understand why he son deals with such violent racism because he himself spent the majority of his life as, to use a Malcolm X term, a house negro. Anyway, it isn’t until the Reagan administration (go figure) that Cecil, much older and with a little more backbone, achieves his goal.
3. Not every black person thought that JFK’s assassination was the end of the world.
In one of the many powerful scenes, Gloria (Cecil’s wife), says that although she is saddened by the President’s untimely death, she’s more concerned with the affairs at her own home, not the White House. In our own hyper connected and hyper sensitive world today, we forget that people in the 60s were not as intimately connected to celebrities and politicians as we are now. Furthermore, many African Americans were not onboard the JFK train as the history books and documentaries might force feed you. In schools, we still teach that Lincoln’s benevolence freed the slaves and that John F. Kennedy basically came out of the womb fighting for black people. That’s just not true and the people who lived during that time were well aware of that. For one reason or another, they knew that no President could (or would) do anything to radically change the “black condition” in America, so JFK’s death, though sad, was not as explosive to the black community as some would have us believe. Now MLK’s assassination on the other hand…
4. It wasn’t just the KKK who attacked freedom riders and young sit-in activists in the South.
…It might have just been the boys down the street, or the First Lady of the Baptist church around the corner. Yeah, she’d spit in your face, too for sitting at a lunch counter in a white’s only seat. Then again, not all white people were anti-civil rights. Oh, and HBCUs along with civil rights activism gladly accepted and included forward thinking people of all races and ethnicities, as we see in the sit-in scene and the freedom bus scene. It shows that hatred and ignorance aren’t biological or genetic. These things are learned and agreed upon and chosen behaviors by individuals under pressure from the environment in which they find themselves.
5. Many members of the Black Panther Party were just as confused and scared as members of any new organization.
The scene where Louis (Cecil’s “rebellious” son) questions his place in and mission of the Black Panther Party is interesting here. Often, if and when we study this movement, we learn that it was militant, violent, and most of all entirely confident in itself and mission. Some of tha is true. However, just like any start up grassroots organization, there are people who join because they need something to stand for; they need something for which they can be apart of. There were many young activists from the civil rights struggle of the 60s who found themselves mature in a still broken America. Many had given up hope that the nonviolence of MLK would be sufficient for what they wanted and decided to speed things up. They were valiantly fighting the same fight as before, but without the harmonious vision set forth by their predecessors. It lacked substantial organization, and recruited many members based on the notion that they were misguided. This is why Louis leaves; he realizes that he was manipulated into joining and although he wants to fight the system, he does not condone the means to that end.
6. Not all Black People were even remotely in support of the Black Panthers…or the civil rights movement for that matter.
Cecil and Gloria’s feelings about Louis’s activism are striking in this film. Too often are we taught that all black people wanted equality and were willing to march and protest and die for it. Too often are we taught that Martin Luther King, Jr. was the voice of all black people. Cecil’s education in the school of life taught him that there are two faces a black man has to wear the real one, and the one that the white man sees. It’s repeated throughout the movie – when you walk into a room, it should feel empty. Smile with your eyes. You have no opinion and you don’t listen or repeat anything. Louis, educated at Fisk, represents everything that his father rejects. His father understands a point that his father made to him at the start of the movie - that this is a white man’s world, and we’re just living in it. Louis understands that this is a world in which we must all share and coexist. Cecil’s understanding of the world – which allows him to rise to the position of White House Butler and has allowed him to create a comfortable, stable life for his family – is founded upon his disposition to service. It forms the basis of why he would protest his son’s actions continuously, eventually disowning him.
Some Many blacks believed that all the activism of the mid-century and social upheaval would damage the very fabric of their existence in America. Blacks became comfortable with the way life was going in America and shunned any attempt to shake things up. I believe that Malcolm X had a term for this mentality. Louis became a threat to Cecil’s way of life, Cecil’s dignity, and every truth that Cecil had grown up believing. Louis’s entire personality was antithetical to Cecil’s father’s teachings. Believe it or not, there were more (are more) people in America like Cecil than like Louis. Go figure.
7. Black Americans fought and died in Vietnam, too. Muhammad Ali did not speak for everyone.
When the Gaines’ youngest son decides to go to war for his country, we see that there is yet another misconception about black people in the 60s and 70s. It’s well documented that Ali rejected the call to duty. However well Will Smith might play that role, there were many blacks who, like men and women of other races, chose to fight for their country in the senseless war. So while Ali and Louis were busy fighting the good fight for the rights that they didn’t have as blacks, there were plenty more who served valiantly and continue to serve for the rights that they did have as Americans.
8. Not all black people who live(d) comfortably had a college degree. Moreover, not all black people who had college degrees chose to live peaceful, acquiescent lives.
Cecil and Gloria lived comfortably in DC. They owned a car and put a child through private college. Cecil was raised on a plantation and worked every day of his life, never seeing the inside of a classroom. On the surface, Cecil seemed content with the way of the world – the world in which he occupied an empty space, a world which was not his won. Louis, by contrast, had a college education, but chose to use his understanding of the world to try and change it for the better. He was jailed multiple times, beaten to a pulp, nearly burned to death in a bus, and shot at for what he believed in. Don’t let that nice house fool you.
9. Respect, integrity, and human dignity go beyond political party or affiliation.
It’s easy, while watching the movie, to forget the political legacies of the Presidents on screen. We see them all as human beings capable of compassion and integrity. In today’s world, we see our politicians are celebrities. We pounce on them when they lie. We smoke them out when they cheat. In the course of the film, we begin to understand that the past generations thought of the US President as just another human being, and they were ok with that. Republican and Democrat meant less to the American people as did the things the candidates actually stood for. With the invention of the internet and the accessibility of a television, things are much different today.
10. The black domestic is subversive to the white man’s racism, without either of them really knowing it.
Dr. King’s lesson to Louis about his father is one of the most profound in the film. While Louis has frown upon his father for his submissiveness to white people, Dr. King tries to teach Louis that black people in the service industry going all the way back to slavery have been slowly and inconspicuously tearing down racial stereotypes about blacks. They show that blacks are hardworking and disciplined, dignified and trustworthy. Now, it doesn’t subvert all stereotypes, and indeed reinforces some serious ones, and King’s philosophy is somewhat problematic. However, the point that King was making serves as a bridge between the seemingly conflicted storylines of Cecil and Louis. It serves to show that they are in fact doing much of the same thing, albeit in very different ways.
Take that middle/high school history.