African American history through a life of service: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

August 23, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in Lee Daniels' The Butler

Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in Lee Daniels’ The Butler

A guest post by Kevin C. Peterson

At the very center of Lee Daniels’ The Butler is the poignantly resonating reminder of the country’s enduring conversation about race–its many complicated tensions, variations, contradictions and resolutions.

The movie, which opened in Boston-area theaters last weekend, is a compelling meditation loosely based on the long career of Eugene Allen, a stoic Southern-born son of a murdered black sharecropper who eventually rose from a restaurant wait boy to the position of maitre d’ at the White House, serving in fine fashion 8 Presidents over 34 years and enduring the protracted pains that are associated with a man of his race and intelligence in a country determined to keep him invisible.

The Butler is based on a 2008 Washington Post article written by Wil Haygood, who formerly worked for the Boston Globe. It chronicles a remarkable swath of American history that highlights the Civil Rights era of the last century where countless citizens, including the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., made signal contributions to ending American apartheid and advancing domestic democracy.

The Butler spans Allen’s White House employment, beginning with President Dwight Eisenhower, who desegregated United States military bases, and ending with Ronald Reagan, who signed into law the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. Depicted in between are Allen’s (in the movie his name is Cecil Gaines) high hopes in President John F. Kennedy, his ambivalence toward President Lyndon Johnson, and a smoldering intolerance for Richard Nixon. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are barely mentioned. Through the course of this film, directed expertly by Lee Daniels, one feels the slow, inexorable move toward civic inclusion for which Allen and many other Americans yearned. The change is propelled at times by acts of Southern violence, the slow grind of the political legal system and the gradual melt of old customs weighted in racist mores.

Written and performed brilliantly by a cast of actors in their prime (see Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Vanessa Redgrave as a southern racist and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan), The Butler is an allegory of our post World War II domestic experience, mining the social fears and guilt within our national psyche.

Viewers are prompted to reflect on the rapid changes in our racial terrain over three generations, emerging from de facto racism to a civic culture that would elect the first American of African descent in 2008.

Forest Whitaker plays Allen skillfully. He will likely earn another Academy Award nomination (he won the best actor award in 2006 for his role as an African despot in the King of Scotland) and Oprah Winfrey, who plays Allen’s adulterous and dipsomaniac wife, Gloria, gives a performance that matches the superior effort she gave as Sethe in the movie Beloved. Their oldest son, Louis, portrayed by David Oyelowo, gives the movie added narrative depth, providing youthful angst and rebellious conflict toward his parents.

The Butler falters in only minor areas. It fails to offer fully rounded characters and also treats its audiences as if it is completely knowledgeable of the complex nuances of the modern civil rights movement.

Where it succeeds extraordinarily is in offering its take on universally human themes that transcend race. Its nuanced depiction of the strains between the father and son summons the tragic feelings of loss, alienation and separation. The often cold marital relationship between Allen and his wife is likewise told with realistic pathos and the tang of sacrifice, slow forgiveness, and then enduring love.

There is a political subtext in The Butler about hope and change, the same tagline branding that was reflected in the Barack Obama 2008 presidential campaign.

The Allens also possessed those sentiments as they bore witness to their evolving lives and ever shifting commitments to each other. Unfortunately, as Haygood reported in his 2008 story, Allen’s wife died just days before the Obama election, but he savored the victory nonetheless.

On a parallel level, change was reflected in Allen’s late reconciliation with his son, an act that gives this picture an overall fullness and resolve that nothing is really over until it’s over, including our enduring struggle over race.

Kevin PetersonKevin C. Peterson is founder and director of the New Democracy Coalition, an organization focused on civic literacy and electoral justice, based at the College for Public and Community Service at the University of Massachusetts Boston.  The views expressed are those of the author.

The queer politics of writing on race

August 23, 2013 at 11:04 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Guest editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

When Sue O’Connell, the publisher and editor of the Boston-based LGBTQ newspaper “Bay Windows,” which I also write for, penned her piece “Sharing our experience: White gay men and black men have more in common than they think” a firestorm erupted. Evidence of  the conflagration was not only seen on the paper’s website but it was also buzzed about around town.

Responses to the piece created a deluge of criticism  ranging from thoughtful advice to damning personal attacks. The fury O’Connell’s piece ignited raised for me this query: “Can white LGBTQs suggest or give advice to communities of color from their own experiences of discrimination?”

It’s a polemic that has been avoided because of the politics of political correctness as well as how any discussion on race, no matter who’s stirring the conversation—a rabid racist, the president or Attorney General Eric Holder–invariably inflame our emotions more that inform our faculties.

Many communities of color contest that white people- straight or LGBTQ—show no real vested interest in engaging in this country’s needed dialogue on race. And many whites have confessed their aversion to such a dialogue, stating that while a cultural defense of “white guilt” plays a role in their reticence so too does their cultural  fear of “black rage” for inadvertently saying the wrong thing.

What further complicates the dialogue on race is a perceived as well as a real avalanche of attacks coming from communities of color spewing how whites are as unconsciously racist as they are incurably so.  This, too, leaves the needed dialogue on race in the balance.

But with the dominate LGBTQ community’s continued indelicate dance of white privilege and single-issue platforms thwarting  efforts for coalition building  with communities of color the notion, for some people of color,  that white marginalized and struggling groups (white women, LGBTQ, the poor, to name a few)  in this country might have something  to offer communities of color in terms of advice and/ or shared (not same) experiences appears absolutely preposterous.

And it is also equally absurd to think that they don’t.

But how, then, do we, as an entire LGBTQ community, broach our needed dialogue on race?

My answer: past harms need to be redressed.

For example, civil rights struggles in this country, unfortunately, have  primarily been understood and demonstrated as tribal and unconnected rather than intersectional and interdependent.

As for our queer community one way to broach our needed dialogue on race is to address white LGBTQs appropriating from people of color’s history of struggle  and then whitewashing it as solely their own.

Case-in-point, the inspiration and source of an LGBTQ movement post-Stonewall is an appropriation of a black, brown, trans, and queer liberation narrative and struggle. The Stonewall Riot of June 27 to 29, 1969 in Greenwich Village started on the backs of working-class African-American and Latino queers who patronized that bar. Those brown and black LGBTQ people are not only absent from the photos of those nights but they also have been bleached from its written history. Many LGBTQ blacks and Latinos continue to argue that one of the reasons for the gulf between whites and themselves is the fact that the dominant queer community rewrote and continues to control the narrative of Stonewall.

For many years I taught a college-level course titled “Power and Privilege,” exploring how many of our stereotypes about people whom we perceive as being different invades our lives without much conscious deliberation on our part. Issues of race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, age and ability, among others, were considered, and how such distinctions often lead to an inequitable distribution of political power, social well-being, and the resources available to individual members of society.

On the syllabus I laid out the rules regarding classroom interaction:

1. We will address our colleagues in our classroom by name.

2. We will listen to one another—patiently, carefully—assuming that each one of us is always doing the best that s/he can.  We will speak thoughtfully. We will speak in the first person.

3. Although our disagreements may be vigorous, they will not be conducted in a win-lose manner. We will take care that all participants are given the opportunity to engage in the conversation.

4. We will own our assumptions, our conclusions, and their implications. We will be open to another’s intellectual growth and change.

5. We cannot be blamed for misinformation we have been taught and have absorbed from our U.S. society and culture, but we will be held responsible for repeating misinformation after we have learned otherwise.

6. We each have an obligation to actively combat stereotypes so that we can begin to eradicate the biases which prevent us from envisioning the well being of us all.

O’Connell blundered in her piece—some on facts and the other thinking the community could have a civil conversation on race.

Rev. Irene MonroeRev. Irene Monroe is a Ford Fellow and doctoral candidate at Harvard Divinity School. One of Monroe’s outreach ministries is the several religion columns she writes – “The Religion Thang,” for In Newsweekly, the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender newspaper that circulates widely throughout New England, “Faith Matters” for The Advocate Magazine, a national gay & lesbian magazine, and “Queer Take,” for The Witness, a progressive Episcopalian journal. Her writings have also appeared in Boston Herald and in the Boston Globe. Her award-winning essay, “Louis Farrakhan’s Ministry of Misogyny and Homophobia”, was greeted with critical acclaim.
Monroe states that her “columns are an interdisciplinary approach drawing on critical race theory, African American , queer and religious studies. As a religion columnist I try to inform the public of the role religion plays in discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. Because homophobia is both a hatred of the “other ” and it’s usually acted upon ‘in the name of religion,” by reporting religion in the news I aim to highlight how religious intolerance and fundamentalism not only shatters the goal of American democracy, but also aids in perpetuating other forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, classism and anti-Semitism.”

The views expressed are those of the author.

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