The Butler – A Review

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker)

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker)

I, Too, Sing America
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen

Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.
–Langston Hughes

The “darker brothers “and sisters have burst out of the kitchen, and they have arrived strong and beautiful on the doorstep of The White House in Lee Daniels’ impressive film The Butler. The film calls up a history that can be traced back to the time when the prevailing plantation system meant that the enslaved cut and hauled each stone to build that house; that George Washington would bring his enslaved servants, Ona “Oney” Maria Judge and Hercules to it (both eventually escaped); that Paul Jennings, President James Madison’s servant/slave would come; that Elizabeth Keckley would be modiste to First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and William Slade, President Lincoln’s butler; and, finally, that Eugene Allen, the butler on whose life the film is based, would join them in a history proving that the African American has had and continues to have an intimate relationship with The White House, our national home.

Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Keckley

William Slade

William Slade

Paul Jennings

Paul Jennings

Daniels firmly holds on to his dramatization of the socio-cultural and racial dynamics as he moves the butler, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), through his thirty-four years in the White House. Who would have predicted, however, that the elegance of domestic science would sashay out and rise as the star of the film! The conventions of manners, grace, and poise within the national home reign supreme, and they are invigorating. As the tea cups, water glasses, dinner plates, silverware and cloth napkins are set and folded respectfully by the hand of each butler, one cannot help but think of Booker Taliaferro Washington, who also thrust a long arm into the presidential suite throughout his career. Say what you will about Washington’s philosophy on and his praise of industrial education, the former slave-turned-consummate educator and founder of the esteemed Tuskegee Institute (1881) understood all too well the attractive art of domestic science and its “neatness and system”. In Working with the Hands, the sequel to his autobiography Up From Slavery, for instance, Washington discovers that seeing the artistry in the product of his manual labor cultivates a positive sense of self. After surveying the results of his handiwork in grounds-keeping while in the service of Mrs. Viola Ruffner, his most exacting white employer, Washington proclaims,

when I saw and realised that all this was a creation of my own hands, my whole nature began to change. I felt a self-respect, an encouragement, and a satisfaction I had never before enjoyed or thought possible. Above all else, I had acquired a new confidence in my ability actually to do things and to do them well. (9).

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

The Hampton Normal and Agricultural School in Virginia (later Hampton Institute) nourished Washington’s self-respect as the school attended his book-learning with its practical industrial education curriculum. At Hampton, Washington learned grounds-keeping, iron and woodwork, cooking, agriculture, personal cleanliness and protocols in behavior. The industrial arts , later to be called Shop Class and Home Economics, then enjoyed an easy collaboration with liberal arts education–that is until, I would surmise, the national effort to integrate public schools in the 1970s. There was a push to focus college/university degrees in the liberal arts, or what Washington labeled “mental and religious education”. This change, unfortunately, shoved to the side the industrial arts such as cabinetmaking and carpentry; mechanical drawing and brickmasonry; dressmaking and tailoring; and welding and mechanic. Almost overnight, “satisfaction inspired by the sight of a perfectly made bed,” and “pillows placed […] at the right angle, and edges of the sheets turned over” became, it seems, anathema to Black progress. (11). Shop Class and Home Economics, then, began their slow but sure decline.

Eugene Allen serves President Gerald Ford and guests at The White House

Eugene Allen serves President Gerald Ford and guests at The White House

Fortunately, The Butler remembers, with deference, the craftsman who works with his hands, and he stands proud along with the iconic Pullman Porter and Chauffeur. Central to The Butler is the acknowledgement of three fundamental components essential for the success of a craftsman’s training: First, expertise for the butler, acquiring an appreciation for etiquette; second, apprenticeship, to hone the craftsman’s skills; and, finally, teachers with an ardent investment in student learning. The African American male and the white mistress, notably, tutor Gaines, and their tutelage produces The Butler, a precise craftsman bearing grace and confidence.

We have watched African American women pass down this legacy in Jonathan Demme’s Beloved and, more recently, Tate Taylor’s The Help. We have heard Oprah Winfrey testify to Diane Sawyer on ABCNews.com’s Person of the Week, “I am the daughter of a maid; my mother was a maid; my grandmother was a maid” to draw attention to the women in her family who worked with their hands in white households. The Butler puts front and center this same legacy in the African American male and his apprenticeship in domestic science.

The scenes between 10-year-old Cecil (Isaac White) and his father Earl (David Banner) in the cotton fields; 15-year-old Cecil (Aml Ameen) and the aged plantation mistress Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave); and Cecil and Maynard, the dessert shop servant, (Clarence Williams III) are stirring illustrations of mentorship across lines of gender and race.

Mistress Wentworth (Vanessa Redgrave) and the making of The Butler

Mistress Wentworth (Vanessa Redgrave) and the making of The Butler

Let us move to a Georgia cotton field. Earl teaches Cecil how to pick the best cotton, using his hands to demonstrate the details of that labor. It is a lesson wrapped in humor: “Now you know the cotton is ready when the bud splits and the bowl is star shaped, like a big old star in the sky–like your big ol’ head!” After a traumatic event in the cotton field, Mistress Annabeth “promotes” Cecil to the big house. There, she instructs him on the rules of perfect service, which, for certain, would cause Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to holler from the underground when he hears her first rule, “[Be] quiet when you’re serving,” and go on to say, “I don’t even want to hear you breathe. The room should feel empty when you enter it.”

Maynard (Clarence Williams III) coaches Cecil

Maynard (Clarence Williams III) coaches Cecil

Upon his “graduation” from the plantation to the city, Maynard tutors Gaines on how to serve white patrons: “Slow down; better to look at their eyes—see what it is they want; see what it is they need. Anticipate.” From the cotton fields to the big house to high society, Cecil’s discipline and pride in his work stand him ready to enter into his national home. Because we have seen him in these contexts, we feel such pride when Gaines announces himself at the White House gate, “I’m Cecil Gaines; I’m the new butler.”

The job is prestigious, but the national, political and the personal domestic spheres inevitably clash. The negotiations Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and Gaines have to make to maintain their marriage, home, and parenthood are engrossing to watch. Secrecy and curiosity, no doubt, infiltrate their household. Gaines has access to the most highly classified information in the world: that requires the confidence to practice discretion. Gloria polishes her respect for this aspect of her husband’s job yet, understandably, yearns to see inside of the White House. This exclusion eventually takes its toll on Gloria. On notification of the Kennedy assassination from her husband, she retorts, “I’m really sorry about the President, I really am. But you and that White House can kiss my ass!”

Poster

Lee Daniels marks how an ordinary man who is educated on a Georgia plantation navigates the verbal and emotional restrictions required by his extraordinary job. This kind of control takes reserve; and, more important, respect for the gravity of one’s place. In all, The Butler pays homage to African American males in domestic service and to those who teach them. In the process, the filmmaker bestows honor on the hands that cleaned the china and polished the silver; that ironed the sheets to make the beds; and that prepared meals and served every one of them with dignity and style. The greater tribute, though, extends to the hands of every enslaved African American who hoisted the stones to build the house that President Barack Obama and family now live in. They, too, are singing America!

A special ‘thank you’ to Professor Emeritus Robert Haller (UNL) for lending his expertise in syntax.

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Samuel L. Jackson & Stephen in Django Unchained (part 2)

Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson)

Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson)

Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) works in Quentin Tarrantino’s Django Unchained. Then again, he does not. What makes him run? Well, Stephen rests in a most controversial place in the annals of film / slave history, and we know him: Uncle Tom. Uncle Rastus. Ol’ Uncle Ben. Coon. Buffoon. Stepin’ Fetchit. House Negro. Any person of African descent perceived to be a sell-out to his race receives at least one of these labels. During a Meet the Press conference for MovieManiacsDE, Jackson calls Stephen “the most despicable Negro in cinematic history.”

In Django, Jackson plays ‘the House Negro’ with the rancor of a disturbed rattlesnake attended by the cunning of a fox! Indeed, he is the villain who ‘grins and lies’ for Master ‘Monsieur’ Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the presence of visitors; yet, behind the Paul Dunbarian mask, Stephen governs the Candieland plantation with unmitigated terror. Jackson rightly recognizes Stephen as “the power behind the throne; the Dick Cheney of Candieland!” (BlacktreeTv). Under his piacular eye, those enslaved, such as Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington) and Cora (Dana Gourrier) live in a virtual domestic hell. The plantation regime itself compounds the situation.

Two cinematic figures coalesce to form “the power behind the throne”: the Tom and the House Negro. Film historian and critic Donald Bogle, author of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks, defines the Tom as the character who “ne’r turn against their white massas, and remain hearty, [and] submissive”. Malcolm X’s famous speech to the SNCC Workers in Selma, Alabama February 4, 1965, no doubt made firm the characteristics of the House Negro:

the House Negro always looked after his master. When the field Negro got too much out of line, he held them back in check. […] The House Negro could afford to do that because he lived […] up next to the master. […]. He ate the same food as massa [and] [h]e could talk just like his master; he had perfect diction. And he loved his master more than his master loved himself. If the master got sick he’d say “what’s the matter boss? We sick?” He never wanted his master’s property threatened, and he was more defensive of it than the master was. That was the House Negro!

In the Big House, Stephen, accordingly, achieves both power and contempt living up next to his master. More striking, the House Negro wrangles respect for his position from the Candie family planters and from the brutal plantation overseers as well. How does he do it? On one hand, he is ‘charmed’ because a cotton ball never touched his hands; somehow he bypassed labor in the cotton fields and kept on walking for 76 years. On another, slave historian Kenneth Stamp would argue that Monsieur Candie succeeds in one of the missions of plantation owners: “persuade bondsmen to take an interest in the master’s enterprise and to accept his standards of enterprise” (147) (my emphasis).

Boardroom Politics

Boardroom Politics

Stephen accepts the master’s charge; therefore, he works in terms of our common sense notions about him. There is more. Tarrantino goes further. The director showcases Stephen’s ‘boardroom politics’ in Candie’s drawing room. Man-to-man, casually sipping his liquor in leather seats in front of a roaring fire in the big-house, Stephen points out to Candie every facet of Django’s (Jamie Foxx) and Schultz’s (Christoph Waltz) plan. Then, he leans comfortably in his seat, and unveils the real intention of the two ‘interlopers’’ visit to Candieland. “Them motherfuckers ain’t here to buy no mandingos,” he says, “They’s here for that [Broomhilda].” The ‘board meeting’ is notable for several reasons. First, it makes known Stephen’s keen discernment of people, their body language, and nuances in dialogue. Second, it solidifies Stephen’s main concern, and that is the preservation of his position on the Candie plantation. Finally, the meeting exposes “the power behind the throne”; in this case it is the African/American mind at work that protects the fiscal health of the plantation and, more notable, maintains the ‘prop’ of whiteness.

Yes, Calvin Candie has power, but his is a power founded on inheritance and the installation of white privilege. Stephen, the master observer, apprehends Monsieur Candie has a license to kill his chattel at will. Regardless of his position, Stephen is chattel. Thus, his investment in the “master’s enterprise” not only ensures the economic wealth of Candieland; his investment, no doubt, has saved his life. In this context, Stephen works.

Stephen and Broomhilda (Kerry Washington)

Stephen and Broomhilda (Kerry Washington)

What does not work is Tarrantino’s dramatization of Stephen as a pathological enslaved everyman Uncle Tom. That Stephen practices evil without compromise coerces the viewer to wish for his punishment and/or demise, and Tarrantino obliges. Why? I hazard one reason: Tarrantino presupposes an acceptance of Stephen without question because of Uncle Tom’s loathsome history. He does not anticipate an interrogation of the character nor that we would care about him. Well, I care, and there are some things I want to know: What is Stephen’s backstory? His ‘charm’ betrays an observant if not precocious enslaved child who learned the strategies necessary to manipulate the emotions and psyche of the plantation owners. What fertilized the ground for Stephen’s ‘charm’ to take to such an extent that he could ‘enjoy’ and practice his rule without retribution? Stephen is shrewd. Someone taught him to read the signs. Someone gave him instructions in semiotics and trained him to interpret those signs in order to make him indispensable to massa himself! On another note, did he breed any children/chattel? If so, how did his power play out when they met the auction block or were whipped or raped? If not, what were his feelings as he witnessed families being torn apart by the auction block? What made his ‘evil’ take root in the interior? Finally. And. Finally. Did he ever love?

Arna Bontemps, author

Arna Bontemps, author

In his ‘research’ of slavery, Tarrantino could have taken a cue from Arna Bontemps, the Harlem Renaissance author of Black Thunder: Gabriel’s Revolt: 1800 (1936). Set in Virginia in the 1800’s, Bontemps features Ben ‘Old Ben’ Woodfolk, an enslaved ‘House Negro’ on the Sheppard plantation for nearly 50 years. Old Ben is meticulous in his daily rituals for Marse Sheppard. Every morning he winds the clock and carefully arranges the old planter’s washstand. He fluffs and feathers the old planter’s bed that it looks like a sitting hen; he unties his nightcap. (155). Both Marse Sheppard and Old Ben “were […] well satisfied with their present status” as master and enslaved. (94). Bontemps, however, designs a contemplative enslaved man. Old Ben’s thoughts on freedom and the auction block not only add dimensions to the character; in addition, his narration points up the why and how Old Ben has curried a kind of loyalty to the Sheppards. On the idea of freedom, Old Ben feels,

[…] it was hard to love freedom. Of course, it was the self-respecting thing to do. Everything that was equal to a groundhog wanted to be free. But it was so expensive, this love; it was such a disagreeable compulsion, such a bondage. (93).

As the aged enslaved servant questions Gabriel Prosser’s slave revolt and the “eleven hundred folks going to cross the streams going into Richmond”, memory springs up to remind Old Ben of his own losses at the hands of Marse Sheppard:

Licking [Marse Sheppard’s] spit because he done fed you, hunh? Fine nigger you is. Good old Marse Sheppard hunh? Is he ever said anything about setting you free? He wasn’t too good to sell them two gal young-uns down the river soon’s they’s old enough to know the sight of a cotton-chopping hoe. How’d he treat yo’ old woman befo’ she died? And you love it hunh? (94).

Black Thunder

These historical markers in Old Ben’s life that memory compels him to revisit shed some light on why he betrays Prosser’s slave revolt: The selling of his children and the mistreatment of his “old woman befo’ she died” have formed an interior callous; his age, too, inhibits any motivation to whole-heartedly embrace Prosser & Co.’s enterprise since “[h]e was past that reckless age” (135). Old Ben, therefore, turns to the only thing left to love: the ‘Good Boy’ status watchfully nurtured by him in the Big House on Marse Sheppard’s plantation.

Tarrantino refuses the device of narrative history for Stephen; one flashback or a piece of dialogue would have sufficed. His refusal is his prerogative but I still hold him accountable. The detection of the narrative absences in Django Unchained can forestall fixed beliefs about enslaved people or at least frustrate the inclination. A socio-cultural context as well as auto/biography is indispensable in the dramatization of that history. This call requires filmmakers to consult with those who have conducted research in the field in addition to checking out history books from the library. In other words, do your homework; if you fail to do so, American film/history suffers.

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