Hailed a renaissance year for black films, backlash over Lee Daniels’ The Butler suggests rhetoric surrounding current racially charged movies remains as divisive as ever, and could cause further angst with upcoming features.
As The Butler heads into its second weekend of release, it continues to dominate the box office, already earning more than it cost to produce. The success comes despite a gathering wave of criticism and controversies.
There were armed guards at a theater in Maryland, for instance. A venue in Kentucky is boycotting the film due to Jane Fonda’s casting. Critics and historians dispute the depiction of the Reagan administration, so-called Uncle Tom idealism, or the accuracy of the picture’s storyline.
Even Oprah Winfrey’s getting slammed for statements she made while promoting the film.
All this seems extreme for a movie that proves to be far from radical when it comes to dissecting the intricacies of racism in American history.
“The U.S. is certainly going through modes of coming to terms with the horrific history of slavery, and the cultural and legal processes of including African-Americans in the grand narrative,” Awam Amkpa, Nigerian playwright and Director of Africana Studies at New York University, tells theGrio. “A significant part of the country, and indeed the dominant culture, continues to have great difficulty in understanding the complexity of racial exclusions, and the modes of articulating social struggles that continue to mark African-Americans with economic immobility and limited political agency.”
Films like The Butler or Fruitvale Station, says Amkpa, intentionally manipulate history for artistic purpose.
They force audiences to address limitations placed on “blackness or African-American subjectivity.”
Thus, characters like Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) serve as a mechanism for discovery and could prompt further exploration and acceptance of these subject matters in film.
Amkpa adds, “The atmosphere that threatens such artistic expressions as The Butler or Fruitvale Station is part of the larger reluctance to deal with the trauma and violence of America’s becoming. It will, however, never deter filmmakers and artists whose creative impulses are to put their fingers on the pulse of the nation.”
A battle from the beginning
While it may have the look and feel of a large-scale Hollywood production, The Butler went through many developmental hoops to find its way onto the screen.
Over 40 producers were recruited to make the picture, as studios were hesitant to greenlight the story. Sheila Johnson, the entertainment mogul who built BET and later became the first African-American female with ownership in three pro sports teams, championed the project from its inception.
Johnson took a couple of years to raise the necessary $30 million it took to produce the independent film. Her diligence paid off, as it has grossed over $32 million in its first week.
Boycott or not, people are coming to the theater.
“A part of this obviously is the backlash in the media,” points out Scott Foundas, chief film critic for Variety. “If you look at how the movie is performing, it’s doing great business at the box office, probably bigger than a lot of historical movies. Whether it’s liked by the audience or just curiosity, people are certainly going to see it. If anything, my expectations may have been less.”
Black and white resistance
In his own review, Foundas describes having mixed feelings on the film, finding it “softer” than a civil rights film like Spike Lee’s Malcolm X while more progressive than The Help, which he says was a “complete whitewash.”
Nevertheless, much of the debate can be expected. The fact a CNN critic called the movie “groundbreaking” almost simply for getting made says a lot.
“Hollywood has a rather timid history with addressing race on screen, and the civil rights period in general,” Foundas observes. “Considering that movies like Driving Miss Daisy and Crash have been held up by the Academy as being progressive movies about race, it gives you an idea of how detached Hollywood is from real life.”
Foundas’ bigger issue was the emotional sweep evoked by Daniels, which may or may not be contributing to the fallout.
“What’s interesting about the movie is how passive and completely apolitical the butler character is for almost the entire film,” says Foundas. “The movie wants to turn his one political act of asking for equal pay for the staff into this gigantic, rousing, ‘rah rah’ moment, but considering that happens in the 1980s, it’s kind of depressing.”
Like Foundas, Dr. Mark Reid, author of Redefining Black Film and professor at the University of Florida, finds the most intriguing character to be the son of butler, Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo).
He relates to Louis’ narrative, as a follower of Malcolm X and admirer of the Black Panthers, and says his relationship with his own father mimicked that of Cecil and Louis.
Whatever controversy may surround the film, Reid isn’t surprised.