As of this week, a half-century will have passed since the March on Washington took place. As of today, a black man is president of the United States and the number one movie in America is about a black man who spent most of his life as a White House butler. You’d have to be some manner of lunatic to claim this doesn’t show that things have changed mostly for the better since the summer of 1963. You’d also have the mind of a rock to assume that this means the game is over, the Dream is Reality and some other uptight ninny wont decide to stalk Forest Whitaker in an upscale grocery store again.
Whenever stuff such as the incident obliquely referred to above pokes into view, some fluffernutter in public office or on TV uses it as an opportunity to encourage bemused spectators to engage in a “conversation about race”; you know, as in: “Just talk amongst yourselves about this race stuff so that we can keep a dialogue going and somehow that dialogue will keep us from being embarrassed when more prejudiced people are caught in the act of being themselves, etc. etc. etc.”
Just so we’re clear: “Race” is, at best, an abstract concept. Abstractions, at best, make people uneasy because abstractions are difficult to grasp as tangible subjects for whatever it is we humans consider “conversation.” Huge abstractions, such as “peace,” “war” or “race,” aren’t topics for conversation so much as occasions for speaking, mostly in public forums such as legislative chambers, TV studios or glandular discharges on the Web, whether as status updates or blogs like this.
In other words: You don’t “talk” about “race.” You “speak” about it. When you “talk,” it’s mostly about your parents, your jobs, your kids; the stuff they learn (or don’t); the stuff you read (or misread). You “talk” about what you overhear, or pretend not to hear. You “talk” about the shabby way you’re treated in a checkout line, or on an airplane or during an otherwise normal workday. Then you “talk” about imagining such things happening to you. If whatever is meant by “race” never ever comes up in these conversations, then somebody’s either hiding or avoiding something because “race” is as unavoidable a subject in American life as it is a vacuous concept. And we’ve always been good at tabling the subject, if not the vacuousness, when it suits us.
That said, Paula Deen and George Zimmerman, along with the build-up to that aforementioned 50th anniversary celebration of the March have helped create an unusual spike in race-related interaction on and off the Internet this summer. So, for that matter, have two movies by African-American filmmakers, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station. Both have provided plenty of opportunities for “speaking” about race. Yet I’ve noticed that when people “talk” about these movies, they do so acknowledging or, at least, suspecting that there are deeper, more complicated aspects to identity and history than whatever shorthand is deployed by popular culture for “race” or even “class” distinction
Fruitvale Station and The Butler go for the gut more than the head in stimulating their responses. But I think both movies achieve their best effects in what they choose not to do to arouse their audiences’ emotions. In Coogler’s case, it’s his resistance to make his doomed protagonist Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan) either a hapless victim or a sanctified martyr. He’s just a serial screw-up making a one-day-at-a-time effort not to leave messes behind wherever he goes. The slivers of hope that are weaved into the last 24 hours of Oscar’s life are made to seem almost as random or as arbitrary as the circumstances leading to his death You could wish or hope he could be more conscientious about the process. But he’s not you or me. He’s a person confronted moment-to-moment, like the rest of us, with options that don’t always reveal their likely outcomes. So when he’s shot to death at the movie’s eponymous BART station on New Year’s Eve 2008, it stuns us more deeply and intimately than it would if the movie were a more overt indictment of racism and police brutality. A symbol or a martyr wouldn’t leave us feeling as devastated at the end as does this movie’s persuasively human Oscar Grant, especially given Jordan’s thoughtful, composed rendering.
The movie’s tough-minded approach is likewise reflected in its portrayal of Oscar’s mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer), who comes across less as the long-suffering black matriarch of predominantly white imaginations and far more as a pragmatic working-class woman who is in constant negotiation with her own heart as to the best way of dealing with her son. Portent and shadow threaten to upend the movie’s levelheaded tone. But that tone wins out; the film’s soft-pedaled humanism maximizes the impact of Coogler’s penultimate blow, reminding everybody who sees the movie that making a sanctified abstraction out of real people like Oscar (and Trayvon Martin and many others like them) is as heinous a crime as what happened to them in the first place.
If Lee Daniels had made similar choices in directing 2009’s Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, I might not have carried as many qualms about The Butler into the multiplex with me. I was one with the critics who believed that earlier movie to be yet another grim variation on Dem Black Pathology Blues that mainstream audiences have too often and for too long accepted as definitive, comprehensive proof of African American dysfunction. Daniels’s baroque curlicues and smudges (e.g. that Fellini-esque parody popping up on Precious’s TV set) didn’t mitigate the bleakness so much as help mark the whole enterprise as an overwrought extravagance, coated with sociological grease from somebody else’s skillet. I was even less inclined to give Daniels slack a year ago when he’d turned Pete Dexter’s best novel, The Paperboy, into another, even more sodden indulgence.
So I didn’t expect Lee Daniels’ The Butler (What is the huge hairy deal with this guy and titles?) to be a cool, dry model of artistic decorum and to that extent, it matched anticipation. This is one of those movies that starts off moist and stays that way throughout. Even the colors on the screen bleed into another the way they did in The Paperboy as if the whole movie were pre-soaked with salty tears. It’s an unwieldy farrago of elbow-nudging history lessons, domestic (in every sense of the word) tension, bell-ringing uplift, senseless violence and besieged nonviolence. (Question for further study: Which made you cringe more? The out-of-nowhere shooting death in the cotton field or the ascending levels of abuse visited upon the SNCC lunch-counter brigade?)
Still…while I might have wanted something far subtler, less overbearing than what Daniels has put forth here, I found myself giving in to The Butler’s old-school Hollywood storytelling. This is the kind of period melodrama where the periods pile into each other heedlessly and impulsively. Denying the primal power of the movie’s cluttered dioramas is pretending I wasn’t enraptured by any number of Warner Bros. or MGM biopics on the afternoon black-and-white TV sets of my childhood. The historian in me was all too aware of how Daniels’ movie conflated and in some cases blithely ignored the actual chronology of the events sweeping by Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) and his family. But I believe The Butler’s main order of business is to convey emotional, rather than accurate, history. And it manages to do so without any lurid, excessive flourishes – that is, unless you count the flaccid caricatures of the First Families, which though not quite the alleged Saturday Night Live routines, aren’t terribly resonant either, save for Jane Fonda’s brief-but-effective depiction of Nancy Reagan as a brittle empress packing concealed paradoxes.
But do I mind commercial movies whose black characters are more fleshed-out and central to both theme and action than the white ones (as opposed to the reverse)? I’ll let you ponder that as I finally get around to talking about Oprah Winfrey’s surprisingly saucy and limber performance as Gloria Gaines, Cecil’s wife. As with Spencer’s Wanda, Winfrey’s Gloria appears poised to have a neon sign blinking, “long-suffering”, with her every on-camera appearance. But she turns out to be far too nuanced and complex to neatly embody such a cliché. She drinks too much, cheats on Cecil with Terrence Howard’s trifling next-door neighbor (who at least looks as if he earns a paycheck, too) and harbors deep-rooted, but inchoate resentments that not even Cecil’s devotion and achievement can dispel. Nevertheless, the narrative envelops sufficient time for the mercurial Gloria to grow out of, if not entirely overcome, her flashes of bitterness. Neither absolute paragons nor soapy contrivances, Cecil and Gloria seem more lifelike than the melodrama that surrounds them.
I hear some claim that such characterizations are only possible with an African American director or writer. I remain unconvinced, mostly because of the lingering memory of 1964’s Nothing But a Man, which, though directed by a white man (Michael Roemer) who co-wrote it with another (Robert M. Young), set a high standard for realistic, humane depiction of African Americans in love and trouble. And I’m a little bugged that Cecil’s resentful activist son Louis (David Oyewolo) does come across as something of a cliché; at least to those who may have forgotten that there were reasons why nonviolent activists like Louis got tired of turning the other cheek. And why oh why does the movie decide to transform Louis’s gentle, soft-spoken Movement girlfriend Carol (Yaya Alafia) into the sullen, Afro-headed demon of both white and black middle-class imaginings? “Low class bitch”? Really? That’s our takeaway from this beautiful young woman who had earlier strained so painfully hard to keep her resolve during the sit-ins? That’s a vulgarization I can’t easily forgive, no matter how many ambivalent feelings I may now have towards the Black Panthers and their fellow travelers.
Nevertheless, I’m glad to see The Butler get over for one reason above all others: For once, a Hollywood movie about black civil rights doesn’t have a white surrogate hero for whom African-American struggle exerts some manner of soulful transformation. Its box-office success (so far) has tempted pundits to believe that black American cinema may have at last achieved its crossover moment. Excuse me if I don’t join the choir on this one, because I’ve heard this tune many times before now. Maybe what can best be said about this summer of Fruitvale Station and The Butler was uttered fifty years ago this week in a speech better remembered for other phrases: It’s not an end. But a beginning.