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Is Lee Daniels' Conservative, American 'Butler' A Black Version of Forrest Gump?

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by Chauncey DeVega
August 20, 2013 2:21 PM
6 Comments
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Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER
Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER

The Butler is a serviceable film with inspired moments. And as noted by many critics, the stunt-casting of the various presidents who Forest Whitaker's version of long-time White House butler Mr. Eugene Allen (named Cecil Gaines in the movie) encounters throughout the decades, is a distraction. Lee Daniels' heart is in the right place; but The Butler is a bloated mess where its broad themes are more admirable and noteworthy than any of its particulars.

The Butler does offer up some positives. It is one of the few major movies in recent years where the focus is primarily on the African-American actors. Moreover, it is especially noteworthy that we can have a "black film" that does not descend into the coonery and buffoonery of Tyler Perry and others' take on new age race minstrelsy. The dignity and difficulties faced by the black men who work at The White House as staff, trained to be "invisible men", is deftly channeled by the panoply of actors involved.

Given their shared narrative format (broad historical arcs and over-simplication of history), it is tempting to compare The Butler to Forrest Gump. Such a move is superficial. Forrest Gump is a movie about a white man who is an unknowing part of history, is present at major events, but is ultimately not responsible for anything. Forrest Gump the character represents the innocence of Whiteness as something ahistorical and without the burdens of either history of historical memory (except for all the "feel good" innocence of American exceptionalism).

In all, Forrest Gump, both the movie and the character, is about how Whiteness, and white folks in mass who are either unwilling or in denial about white privilege and racism as foundational forces in American and modern history, would like to imagine themselves.

The Butler is very conscious of history and its connections to the present. Cecil Gaines is "us"; Cecil Gaines is the black viewer, our kin, community, and extended family. White folks are not reduced to spectators per se: they are validated by a feel good story of how much "their America" has changed for the better and the means through which powerful white elites ultimately do "the right thing" in terms of civil rights.

Forrest Gump is an exercise in rejecting and evading historical responsibility. The Butler is a meditation on black respectability and the many connections between small acts of day-to-day resistance by regular folks such as maids, butlers, Pullman car porters, etc., titans like Dr. King, and a Black Freedom Struggle which resulted in the election of Barack Obama.

The Butler and Forrest Gump do share some political and thematic similarities. For example, they both mock and caricature the Black Power Movement. The Butler through news sound bites, Nixon's meeting about Cointelpro, and Cecil's son's involvement with the Black Panthers, depicts them as a violent group of clowns who are the bastard children of the "good" Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. King.

This is a flattening of history that ignores the overlap between different elements in the Black Freedom Struggle. It is also inaccurate to depict the Black Panthers as a type of violent organization populated by blaxsploitation versions of Black Radicalism. The White Racial Frame and consensus racial liberalism need to misrepresent Black Nationalism as a means of cementing their sense of triumph and legitimacy in post civil rights America.The Butler does that political work quite effectively.

As a very "white" film, Forrest Gump takes a complementary approach. Gump's love interest, "Jenny" the "white fallen woman" character, takes up with a similarly cartoon-like "Black Radical" group who rape and sexually exploit her until Forrest saves her from their evil "black beast rapist" machinations. He then makes a "good woman" out of her, rehabilitating her character as they recreate the white nuclear family at the end of the movie.

Lee Daniels' The Butler is extremely conservative politically and fits solidly within the post civil rights America Hollywood race relations project. Cecil Gaines is a legitimation of the (black) Horatio Alger myth. If you work hard, suffer, and be quiet, then you too can change your part of the world and find success in America. The message: blacks and other people of color should not be disruptive or radical. Work within the system, and if you are patient, then the American Creed--because the United States is the best country on Earth--will reward you as it corrects its defects over time.

There are white racist villains in America--most of them in the South of course. There are also good benevolent white people, such as the various Presidents of the United States, who will do the right thing by black and brown folks if given the time. And of course, the cult of Saint Ronald Reagan--who was a States' Rights supporting racist that used the Southern Strategy and the image of the black "welfare queen" to win elections--has to be reinforced and perpetuated at every opportunity.

Students of black politics will find much to discuss and debate about The Butler. Cecil Gaines' son's transition from the liberal integrationism of Dr. King and mainline civil rights, to his joining the Black Power movement, to eventually becoming involved in establishment "urban" Democratic politics is a metaphor and example of the challenges, shortcomings, and successes of black political mobilization and incorporation over the decades.

Louis Gaine's development, the tension with his father, and Nixon's discussion of how to demobilize black radicals through targeted outreach and patronage, complements the thesis and claims made by Cedric Johnson in his book From Revolutionaries to Race Leaders.

The Butler also has a nice wink and "Easter Egg" for students of Black Politics when Oprah Winfrey's character looks through her son's possessions and discovers Manning Marables' book "Race, Reform, and Rebellion".

Dr. Marable recently passed away. It would be nice to believe that Lee Daniels wanted to include Marable's book as an acknowledgement of his role as one of the senior scholars in the study of African-American politics and history.

The Butler is a near perfect film for the Age of Obama. It meditates on the complexities of black respectability, black pride, and black (apparent) submission and deference to the White Gaze.The Butler clearly depicts how black confidence and dignity were traits to be punished by white supremacist violence.

The Butler then offers a corrective to this history though the acts of quiet resistance and quiet revolution that were made by men such as Eugene Allen.

In The Butler, American history comes full circle with a black servant to white presidents meeting the country's first African-American president. Of course, there is no mention of the vitriolic white racism that Obama's election has inspired from the White Right and the Tea Party GOP in The Butler. The ending of the film will not allow it.

Instead, The Butler gives audience members of every racial background something to celebrate. American exceptionalism is once again reinforced through racial catharsis and healing. Black folks can go from the lynching tree (one of the first scenes of The Butler) to the White House. History is a tapestry of lies and truths; together they do political work through popular culture.The Butler is one more example of that phenomenon in practice.


Chauncey DeVega is editor and founder of the blog We Are Respectable Negroes, whose work has been featured by the NY Times, Alternet, the New York Daily News, the Utne Reader, the Week, and The Atlantic Monthly. Writing under a pen name, Chauncey DeVega's essays on race, popular culture, and politics have appeared in various books, as well as on such sites as the Washington Post's The Root and PopMatters. @chaunceydevega on Twitter; email: chaunceydevega@gmail.com
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6 Comments

  • Robyn | August 21, 2013 1:04 AMReply

    I thought the movie was well done. I enjoyed the characters, performances and historical references. Was it perfect? No, but I don't think it sucked either. I'd go out and support the movie again.

  • Donella | August 20, 2013 5:09 PMReply

    I never saw Forest Gump, so when I watched The Butler, Forest Whitaker's character reminded me of Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the day (1993).

    Description from IMDB: "A butler who sacrificed body and soul to service in the years post World War II realizes too late how misguided his loyalty has been."

    Quiet repression of emotion, politics, and passion only realizing in older age how much is missed and what was sacrificed in the name of dutiful service.

    In The Butler, the final outrage was Ronald Reagan's wrong stance on apartheid. In Remains of the Day, the final outrage was Nazi collaboration.

    I loved both movies.

  • chaunceydevega | August 20, 2013 2:42 PMReply

    thanks for the comment. Gump is about many things--one of them about disability, race, masculinity, and innocent whiteness. Jenny is a symbol of many things. One of them is fallen white womanhood and the need to recreate a "normal" family. Jenny however is "polluted" and thus not fit to be w. Forrest at the end of the movie, but she "rewards" him with a "normal" healthy child.

    In that scene with the Panthers there is a great deal going on. What type of "reasonable" white woman--or white man--would take up with such a "racist"--a caricature of course--organization? Jenny's boyfriend beats her. Those black men do not choose to defend white womanhood in that moment. Forrest is given that role. Moreover, it is very difficult to read that scene without an acknowledgement of the shadow of black masculinity, fears of interracial sex, and the White Gaze that looms over Hollywood Whiteness, American history, and that film.

    Jenny is an archetype. How low will that "fallen white woman" go? So low as to be in league w. the Panthers? The sexual aspect is implied if not directly foregrounded in the text. I should have framed the question of "exploitation" as such--meaning for that type of character and hegemonic whiteness/white gaze--such a relationship is implied and understood.

    There is some pretty good scholarly work out there on the Gump movies which flesh this narrative of race, masculinity, erasure, and racial reunion out very well.

  • CareyCarey | August 20, 2013 4:22 PM

    MY MAN Chauncey!... its been a minute but I see you're still rolling strong!

    @ Shadow and Acts reader, if there is one blog that should be required reading, I'd point to Chauncey's "We Are Respectable Negroes". As this post will attest, with the passion of a person on a serious mission, the man from Sergio's stomping grounds brings it like no other.

  • S. Rai | August 20, 2013 2:33 PMReply

    "As a very "white" film, Forrest Gump takes a complementary approach. Gump's love interest, "Jenny" the "white fallen woman" character, takes up with a similarly cartoon-like "Black Radical" group who rape and sexually exploit her until Forrest saves her from their evil "black beast rapist" machinations" - I'm sorry, what edit of Forrest Gump are you referring to? In the movie, she's neither raped nor sexually exploited by the members of that group, and in that particular scene is smacked by her white boyfriend. You can achieve the point of your op.ed without making particular characterizations from that movie worse then they actually were...

  • Steve | August 21, 2013 1:01 AM

    Don't bring up facts in this it doesn't fit into the authors narrow narrative. The black panther party in Forrest Gump is just background to Forrest, Jenny and Jenny's abusive white boyfriend. At no time is Jenny raped or even having consensual sex with any of them and Forrest doesn't save her from them as she leaves Washington DC with her same abusive boyfriend. It's almost seems the author of this article never even saw the movie.

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