‘The Butler’ backlash brings back memories of ‘Help’ hysterics

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'The Butler'

This film image released by The Weinstein Company shows Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, left, and Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in a scene from "Lee Daniels' The Butler." (AP Photo/The Weinstein Company, Anne Marie Fox)

Is The Butler destined to become a facsimile of The Help?

As the latest civil rights era production gets ready to grace the big screen, the question is being raised with increasing frequency and, it should be noted, in a less than constructive fashion. The arguments deployed against The Help are now being aimed at Oprah Winfrey’s latest cinematic venture: namely, that the movie does a disservice to blacks everywhere, by making them appear subservient or diminished in the narrative.

Recently, the actor Harry Lennix made a few headlines when he launched a blistering tirade against The Butler. Dismissing the movie as “historical porn,” Lennix’s criticism recalled the rhetorical spitballs critics lobbed at The Help just a couple of years ago.

‘Another one of those movies’

The overarching gripe about The Butler is that its central character, Cecil Gaines – played by Forest Whitaker – is portrayed as yet another docile, black hired hand. Sight unseen, detractors seem to conclude the film is “another one of those movies.” You know, the kind in which Hollywood delights in lavishing accolades on films where blacks are relegated to positions of inferiority.

For those having come of age in an era where blacks occupy the pinnacles of power in politics, entertainment, sports and academia, it’s nigh inconceivable to imagine a time where the social status of many blacks reflected their history as descendants of slaves. Accustomed though we may be to the heroic figures associated with the Civil Rights movement – and for the record, there have been plenty of movies produced about those iconic men and women – films like The Butler underscore a plethora of stories yet to be told about ordinary men and women.

For every Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm Shabbazz, Medgar Evers and Nelson Mandela, there’s an unexploited narrative about someone whose existence, tragedies and triumphs all deserve to be exposed to history’s daylight. Gaines’ unique story, in which he gets a front-row seat to some of the most fateful decisions made by eight different presidents, is certainly no different.

Much like The Help, the Oprah Winfrey and Lee Daniels’ labor of love is already the subject of breathless media profiles, and is being floated as a sure-fire Oscar contender. That speculation may be premature: The Butler arrives in the wake of a succession of high profile summer box office flops. The movie has also spent the week in the shadow of a pseudo-controversy over Ms. Winfrey’s dubious encounter with racism at an upscale Swiss boutique.

Black films could pay a price

Still, the movie could be a watershed moment for black cinema, and not necessarily in a good way. Much hay is often made about the dearth of quality roles for black actors in Hollywood; yet when films like The Help or The Butler are produced, they are invariably blanketed by a blizzard of hyper-criticism.

The cacophony becomes a barrier to projecting important movies onto the public’s consciousness. Filmmakers would rather avoid making a movie altogether than be forced to contend with the obstreperous polemics that accompany movies like The Butler or The Help. The endless controversies over black movies have gotten to the point where movies won’t get made, or won’t get their due, simply because certain people can’t tolerate anything other than their own narrow interests. What actor or producer wants to deal with the headaches and inevitable drama that comes along with these movies?

Films like Amistad, Glory, Lincoln, Roots have all been on the receiving end of a barrage of gripes about their accuracy, and whether they are accurate portrayals of the black experience. Still, all of these movies have served a purpose: they have told interesting stories from unique perspectives. These films have also highlighted the everyday stories of the people most affected by slavery and segregation, whose names have been largely ignored in the annals of history.

History ignored and forgotten

By now, after all of the movies about America’s pre-civil rights era that have hit the big and small screen, you’d think the cultural ground would be fertile enough for the public to be spared these debates. Sadly, honest discussions about black history are hard to come by. We’re rapidly approaching a point at which movies about black history may not see the light of day – even if they deserve to.

Making movies about black history has been rendered impossible by a cadre (or cabal?) of self-appointed cultural gatekeepers. These same folks complain bitterly about the lack of black-historical narratives on screen, yet never miss an opportunity to savage anything they deem insufficiently reverent or hagiographic.

We live in a society where individuals are free to patronize whatever institutions or works they choose. Actors aren’t forced to audition for roles, and the public certainly isn’t forced to buy tickets to anything they deem offensive.

To those who are put off by the subject matter of The Butler, a simple word of advice: don’t go see it.