Tuesday, February 11, 2014

History, Language, and the Movies

Two important films connected to Black History were released in 2013: 12 Years A Slave, directed by Steve McQueen (not the dead one, another one) and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, directed, obviously, by Lee Daniels – who was not trying to be an egomaniac by inserting his name in the title, but was forced to by Warner Brothers, which holds the rights to a 1916 silent film entitled The Butler and wouldn’t let him use it without that name distinction.

I haven’t yet seen 12 Years A Slave, which has been highly praised and got nine Oscar nominations.  I look forward to seeing it, especially after watching an interview with screenwriter John Ridley, who greatly impressed me.  I have seen Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which I loved and feel deserved an Academy nod to Forest Whitaker for Best Actor, if nothing else.  This film is good (if not great) and it reveals the noble history of Black servants in the White House who hold a special place in Black History of long-term, impeccable, discreet service, despite the horrors of Slavery, post-Reconstruction Jim Crow laws, and the long hard road to Civil Rights.

I don’t think …Butler received the same kind of audience enthusiasm because (if online comments on reviews and other articles are anything to go by) the increasingly language-ignorant public didn’t understand the difference between “inspired by” and “based on” and therefore felt …Butler was somehow illegitimate.

…Slave was based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a real-life free Black man who lived in New York in the 1830s, and was kidnapped in Washington DC in 1841.  He was forced to live and work as a Slave on a Louisiana cotton plantation until he was rescued in 1853.  He subsequently wrote his autobiography, which was published in 1853, and it was this true story that captured the interest of McQueen and Ridley.

It is worth noting that in the Ridley interview, he said his one fear is audiences will leave the theater with a sense of relief that the terrible days of Slavery are over.  They are not.  As he explained, the level of Slavery worldwide – including in the U.S. – is three times larger than the enslavement of Africans that brought them to America, the Caribbean, South and Central America and parts of Europe.  Today, tens of thousands of women and men and girls and boys are roped into Slavery, Sex Trafficking, and Indentured Servitude, which have yet to be adequately addressed by individual countries (including ours) and the United Nations.  If …Slave doesn’t inspire widespread indignation and calls for international intervention into contemporary Slavery, this fine film will only stand as a well-crafted bio-pic about the past.

…Butler was inspired by a Washington Post article about retired White House butler Eugene Allen, who served at the White House from the Truman through Reagan administrations.  Forest Whitaker’s character, Cecil Gaines, is not and was never intended to be Eugene Allen, nor was the film meant to be Gaines’ story.  Certain events in Gaines’ life are used in the film, because they’re typical of the privileges and indignities experienced by all Black White House servants, especially the butlers.

But this story tells the truth about the many Black men and women who had and still have unrivaled access to America’s presidents’ public policies and personal feelings – and who consistently protect the privacy of America’s chief executives and their families while providing top-notch service for which they are highly trained.  Most serve in these positions for decades and can sometimes hand them down to their children.

While some of those who saw …Butler were outraged by insignificant differences between Allen and Gaines – such as where they were born and worked prior to their White House careers, what their wives and children were like, etc., – they missed the important messages of the film.  One of Gaines’ two sons, Louis, is a Civil Rights maverick who sees his father as an Uncle Tom.  And much like Forest Gump, Louis finds himself plunked into the major events of his time: marching in Selma, being with Martin Luther King Jr. in jail and in King’s Memphis hotel room before he’s killed, joining the Black Panthers et al. 

When Louis tells Dr. King, clearly with a sense of shame, that his father is a butler, King says the following: “Young brother, the black domestic defies racial stereotypes by being hardworking and trustworthy.  He slowly breaks down racial hatred with the example of his strong work ethic and dignified character.  Now while we perceive the butler or the maid as being subservient, in many ways they are subversive without even knowing it.”  I don’t know if King ever really said this, but it doesn’t matter.  That’s language to pay attention to.

No comments: