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At the Intersection of Race And Class: Lee Daniel’s The Butler

Lee Daniel’s The Butler presented a well-written narrative about the struggles people of color face in order to advance in white society. Cecil Gaines faced what seemed like insurmountable pain and anguish to advance from the son of a sharecropping slave to a professional black domestic. The dynamic between the characters, between the parents and children, between the two brothers – Louis and Charlie, and between Louis Gaines – the older son –  and the father, Cecil Gaines and even between the Gaines family and the other black families they socialized with was very engaging.
TheButler-Glove-FINAL-jpg_165328 The narrative tells the story of the sacrifices made by a black domestic worker to raise in status among a society dominated by racism and oppression. The Butler works his entire life to get what the Gaines family was able to achieve. It is a story about sacrifice, struggle, race, whiteness, power, racism, oppression, and struggle. The Butler  weaves an interesting tale about the struggles many blacks face across time in a society based on systems of racist oppression. However, the film does not explore much of the reality of black life and in many ways seems to glorify certain people of color over others. The tagline of the film, “One Quiet Voice can Spark a Revolution”, says a lot about the purpose of telling this story at this particular moment in history.  This is part of a process to redefine black history, particularly of the 1960s and 70s, with the purpose of disempowering oppressed people of color.

The Butler presents a story of a black domestic, Cecil Gaines, who holds his tongue in the face of racism and gains status among whites for accepting racism. The “quiet voice” of the person this movie was based on – Eugene Allen – would have passed long into history if it weren’t for the work of Wil Haygood of the Washington Post. Eugene Allen is not the voice of the revolution, he was the silent victim of oppression. The political message of The Butler is not one of black independent political thought and social struggle, but one of silence, complicity, disempowerment, and oppression. This story is being told in this moment for specific reasons, none of which are about telling a true and accurate history of black freedom struggles.

More on Wil Haygood and Eugene Allen:

The film has many problematic points, including body policing, shaming, and demonizing views of black political struggle and identity. The Butler deliberately misrepresents the Black Panther Party. The Black Panthers are covered in a matter of a few minutes with images depicting riots and a scene where a character who is allegedly a Black Panther leader was arguing that the party should go out and kill two policemen for each member the police kill. The Black Panthers never advocated such a line and were never about violent attacks on others. The Black Panthers grew from the black underclass, distinctly different from the upper classes that Cecil Gaines became a part of. This underclass became the target of racist violence from individuals and the state on a regular basis. The Black Panthers advanced an argument for community self defense.  They made the argument that black people and all oppressed people had the right to defend themselves against their oppressors. They didn’t organize lynch mobs to go out and kill police.

The Butler presents the history of black struggle from a certain perspective. It is not a history of black struggle as told by those who suffered the most in society. In many ways, The Butler is about encapsulating the “American Dream” through a black lens, presenting the story of Cecil Gaines as a model for black to be able to pull themselves out of poverty all on their own. This notion is profoundly absurd and counter-productive for most people of color who face racism and oppression on a daily basis. It is simply not a solution for many people of color. This narrative does, however, serve a direct political purpose for black elites, those with power, many of whom are tokenized by the white society.

Black Panther Party - 1960s

The Black upper class along with whites work hard to revise the history of black freedom struggles to exclude and demonize struggles and messages that challenge the privilege these classes have built over the past forty years. The Black Panthers advocated for communist and socialist revolution, a revolution that would undoubtedly challenge the power of modern-day members of the black ruling class. Members of that class must, as such, work hard to revise the history of such organizations and begin depicting them as violent, antagonizing, and terrorist-like forces to discourage any similar activity in the current period.  This takes shape as stories of the Black Panthers define them as a radical violent even “terrorist” organization while also directing focus towards Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech – particularly the second half – and away from the more radical anti-imperialist and anti-poverty rhetoric of his later days.

The coup de gras of the film comes at the very end. Lee Daniels places Barack Obama as the pinnacle achievement of the civil rights movement. Yes, that is Obama, the president responsible for the most deportations of any president in history. The president who is dropping bombs and hellfire missiles on black and brown people overseas. Daniels draws a line connecting Martin Luther King Jr. to President Barack Obama, an effort that would certainly appall MLK and should appall those who understand what he was advocating for towards the end of his short life.

a74ac_mlk-obama-16x91MLK would be one of Barack Obama’s greatest detractors if he were alive today. This becomes vividly clear if we follow the logic from the political positions he began to take towards the end of his life. MLK came out against the Vietnam war, spoke of the United States as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, began to take stronger positions on poverty and capitalism, and began to make strong strides towards creating more unity among black freedom struggles and other struggles of the time as well. He was taking these positions and making these strides in a period of protracted struggle against racism and imperialism.

The Butler serves an explicit political purpose for those people of color who have been tokenized into white society and who benefit from classism the most. The Butler is a story the telling of which serves two deliberate purposes on the side of black empowered classes and white liberals. The Butler is a story whose intent is to represent black freedom struggles through the lens of the empowered black classes. These classes seek to maintain their power and the privilege they have in society. They want to demonize black freedom and power struggles that challenge class relations to defend their own interests and those of the white liberals who have accepted and tokenized them into white society.

Lee Daniel’s The Butler appeases white guilt and racism by presenting a story of people of color who fit into the American Dream paradigm, who don’t challenge for political power, who actually demonize independent political thought and radical political organization, and demonize blacks who seek to develop black identity outside of white society and racism. Daniel’s narrative allows whites to validate their racism through the lens of privileged black classes by typifying the Gaines family as if it is generalizable to all people of color.

MLK_vs_Obama_2013The telling of this story in this specific moment with the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963) is about defining black power struggles through the privileged class’s lens – that of sacrifice, silence, polite persistence, and waiting for white people to let people of color become “a part” of white society. The purpose of drawing a direct line from MLK to Obama is to discourage independent political organization of people of color that would challenge the political hierarchy and build social struggles to challenge for political power. This is a deliberate action on the part of the empowered black classes to centralize the hopes of black people in the hands of the Democratic Party.

There are some burgeoning struggles and movements of people of color that grow out of the black working and underclass, much like the Black Panthers did. Independent organizations of color that advocate and fight for the interests of their communities are entirely critical in the current period. This is especially the case as the Democratic Party and Obama seek to further entrench themselves into these communities in the upcoming election.

The Democrats and the Republicans are both parties of austerity, budget cuts, and bailouts. Austerity has devastated communities of color for decades from housing to the drug war to schools and prisons. People in these communities are being purposefully misled by black elites into the Democratic Party and away from possibilities of more radical struggles and periods of transformation.

Lee Daniel’s The Butler plays a role in progressing the agenda of racism, austerity, and oppression. He is enforcing systems of racism and oppression and support the further devastation of black and brown communities by purposefully misrepresenting black history, by aligning with white liberals, and by demonizing independent black organization and struggle. The Butler presents a view of history through a privileged lens that serves the interests of those telling it and disregards struggles faced by poor people of color on a daily basis.

The Butler says very little about the lived reality of many people of color. The telling of this story at this particular time demonstrates an intersection between race and class, where certain people of color are deliberately misrepresenting their own history in order to maintain their gained privilege and appease a political system that exploits people of color daily on a massive scale.

This is a story of revisionism, classism, and racism. The Butler disempowers people of color while simultaneously presenting an image of their empowerment, seeming arguing that people of color must be willing to submit to systems of racism in order to assimilate and be accepted into white-dominated society.

This is a narrative of black struggle written and informed by the politics of privileged blacks and white liberals. This is not a history of black freedom struggles, this is a history of disempowerment and dependence on the Democratic Party. The Butler aims to serve the interests of empowered classes and sustain systems of oppression and racism under the guise of the “good intentions” of liberalism.




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