Welcome back to “Yes No Why?’ the Bold As Love column in which we highlight trailers of upcoming and little-known older films starring or made by Black talent and contrast them with ones we’d rather forget.
This Friday comes the release of the hotly anticipated by some movie, Tyler Perry’s The Butler. Oh, I’m sorry, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. It’s difficult to tell those two directors apart sometimes. Lee Daniels is the one who doesn’t wear a dress in his films. But the differences seem to end there, as both directors seem keen on taking Black stereotypes and exploiting them to past no end in sight, all with the help of Oprah Winfrey.
Starring Forest Whitaker as the eponymous character, The Butler is inspired by a Washington Post article that came out after President Obama’s first White House win highlighting former butler Eugene Allen who served eight presidents (Harry Truman through Ronald Reagan) and witnessed firsthand how the world changed in the most powerful house of the world, as well as in his own. Oprah Winfrey stars as his devoted wife along with David Oyewolo as his son who begins as a Civil Rights Movement freedom rider and transforms into a Black Panther-type after being fed up with non-violent protest. The film also co-stars a bevy of Hollywood talent like Robin Williams as Eisenhower, Alan Rickman as Reagan, and oddly enough John Cusack as Richard Nixon, to name a few.
Check out the trailer:
Though I have yet to see the film, based on the trailer, which even shows poor Blacks working in cotton fields, it comes off as one of the contemporary trend intended to make White people feel nostalgic about how bad Black people had it and how much they publicly dominated American life in the past compared to now, and somehow tries to make us feel sentimental about it too. That may be a hard line to take, but recent fare like The Help also takes place in the past and conveniently displays the noblest of Blacks as subservient, even though they are often smarter or wiser than those they are serving. This is especially problematic as it is often big to mid-level Black stars who play these roles; The Butler also co-stars Cuba Gooding Jr., Colman Domingo, and Lenny Kravitz as butlers alongside Whitaker. Despite the actors, the material can seldom stand as having worth.
And for Whitaker, with marketing campaigns flouting that his performance will lead to an Oscar nomination, (as Hollywood did with The Help), juxtaposed with Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station, it is a step backward. Regardless of being based on a true story, American film has a poor track record of bringing anything new to this dynamic and Lee Daniels himself often directs in broad strokes, reducing a story that could have overarching potential importance to stereotypical or derivative drivel (Though slightly in his defense, it may be more whitewashed than usual as the studio wanted him to keep it PG-13). Proponents of The Butler say that like its sister film The Help, it tells the story of Black butlers and maids, who despite being servants were often proud of the work they did. Yet from personal family experience I feel Black folks already know there was no shame in being a domestic. You did what you had to do to put food on the table for your family. But it does not mean you want to be reminded about what you had to do.
Because movies and images like these are still being perpetuated, and are detrimental to the modern Black film and media experience, I give the trailer (and most likely the film) an absolute NO! and a resounding WHY?!
Still I can’t help but feel that it is reminiscent of the mini-series ‘Backstairs at the White House’ (1979, NBC) which told the story of Maggie Rogers and Lillian Rogers Parks, two mother/daughter domestics (a maid and seamstress) in the White House from 1909-1961, (Taft to Eisenhower – 8 presidents) combined. While not so seriously toned, it had a humorous commentary and warmness buffeted by star Olivia Cole as Maggie and Robert Gossett Jr’s performances, as well as the underrated Robert Hooks’ own (Leslie Uggams, the co-star and ‘it-girl/woman’ of the time often overacted, unfortunately). Still, it also came directly after Roots, the highly influential mini-series about one family’s three-generation journey from slavery to freedom, in which most of the ‘Backstairs’ cast also starred.
Here is a clip from Backstairs for comparison.
The movie in its entirety is available on Netflix DVD and on YouTube.
The subservience angle takes us back in time to another film that the filmmaking establishment loves but Black film audiences abhor, the infamous Driving Miss Daisy (1989). Despite being sold as a heart-warming tale of friendship about how an old Jewish woman (Jessica Tandy) and her African-American chauffeur in the American South have a relationship that grows and improves over the years, seeing then budding film star Morgan Freeman drive around an old white woman was and remains to be a step backwards for many in the Black community. The film remains the butt of jokes in regards to Black servitude despite being a multiple Academy Award winner, or moreso perhaps because it was.
For many of the reasons I stated for The Butler I also give the Driving Miss Daisy trailer – and movie – a NO!
It’s a shame because you can have a Black character as a servant but he still has agency and even actual supremacy. Coupled with fantastic comedic timing, Eddie Anderson as Rochester in The Jack Benny Program, on radio and television, had such charm and dignity that despite being Benny’s manservant one was never quite sure just who was in charge, even though Rochester always referred to Benny as ‘boss’ and ‘Mr. Benny.’ I’m not advocating for a Black butler/White boss situation, but if it’s going to exist let’s at least have one that’s even-handed. Though not a trailer, this clip from “The Jack Benny Program” (Season 6, episode 11 – 1956) is a perfect example of how Rochester would manipulate Benny to serve his own needs. While this clip has an unfortunate demeaning moment, the pathos it ends up provoking in Benny leads to a classic Rochester ‘takeover.’ Benny even ends up cooking Rochester a big dinner. Watch this now – it’s a guaranteed YES!