‘The Butler’ and black male identity


For eons the pendulum of portrayals of black masculinity has swung toward two extremes: Martin on one side, Malcolm on the other. You’re either down for some non-violent protesting against injustice or you’re ready to take up arms until you get justice. That’s it. Nothing else really exists in the murky waters of black maleness. You are either an Uncle Tom or an A.B.M. (Angry Black Man). For every Huey P. Newton there is a Clarence Thomas.

Lee Daniels' “The Butler” puts the extremes of black masculinity under one roof as Forest Whitaker’s character, Cecil Gaines, becomes a long tenured butler at the White House, while his oldest son, Louis, takes a decidedly different path. The tension between the two plays out on screen as the father and his eldest offspring battle with what being a black man means. The struggle for Cecil is not to lose himself to his profession while maintaining his place as the king of his castle. Louis sees his father as less than because he is a butler, so he seeks outside interest to define himself.

President Obama walks this line everyday. If he doesn’t address all black issues immediately, he is lambasted as everything close to working with the man (see Cornel West and Tavis Smiley). If he gets too aggressive, a problem he faced during the debates against Mitt Romney, he is labeled angry.

It is these two extremes that create the bookends of black masculinity that have interwoven a second-guessing into the black male consciousness. The problem with these extremes for black men is that they only allow for one of two outcomes: a successful black man is either soft-shoeing or Uncle Tom-in' his way to the top, or any challenging of the system is bullying his way into it.

Daniels plays with the extremes of black masculinity throughout the film, and in the end, I am left wondering, which depiction of black masculinity does the viewer leave the theater thinking is the "right" one?

As a black man, I can tell the viewer that the answer is neither. It's a lose-lose either way. Too far to the right and I am losing myself. If I stand up, say something, fight back, then am I embarrassing my family, my people and my upbringing. In the movie, Cecil watches as some of the biggest cases in the history of Civil Rights are happening while he is serving tea. He is there while presidents are deciding on whether or not to end segregation, or whether the U.S. should stand against Apartheid. If he says one word, interjects just one point, offers merely one opinion he is fired for the butler’s credo is to exist in a room like you are not there. On the militant side is Louis. He’s apart of the panthers and growing his afro and railing against the system. The thing that kept glaring out at me is while Cecil is essentially castrated to keep his job the only way that Louis gets to explore his upset is because he has the bulter’s shoulders to stand on. That militant expression comes only as luxury when a bulter’s salary helps keep the lights on. The more that the two characters ran from the embarrassment of the other, the more alike they became.

The reality is, the true scope of black masculinity is difficult to define because it is wound into a tangled rubber-band-ball of slavery, and oppression and guns and crooked cops. It is the mother’s hand tugging ears telling you not to be like those boys who cuss in back of the church. It is a series of missteps and unguided aggression. It is most times a matter of right feelings, wrong place. It is Trayvon and Amadou Diallo and countless other brothers dead for being inconveniently black. It is standing up for something because you know it to be right, only to be destroyed by that same conviction. It is a lose-lose no matter how it plays out, because the definition of black masculinity is bundled up into a white oppressive racial history that is defining black maleness even as black men try to undue it.

So young men who wear hoodies and buy skittles and tea have learned what about their youth, and more importantly what have they learned about their blackness?

My mother would beat me worse if I acted up in front of white people because she knew that I knew I wasn’t raised the way that I behaved but more importantly I let white people in on secret that wasn’t supposed to leave our home; that sometimes as a child I behaved, well, like a child. In those moments I was embarrassing her. The car ride home would be filled with my mother imagining how said white family would be going on about the little black boy who couldn’t get it right.

So I, like most black men, began a life of second-guessing. Too far left and it eats at me the misdeed playing out in a loop on surround sound. Too far right and the wheels fall of, the hinges break and as Bruce Banner says right before he turns into the Hulk, “you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”

And this is what makes the extremes in the film and in life more frustrating. I wanted Cecil to yell at someone other than his son and I wanted his son to understand that his father’s inability to speak out doesn’t make him weak it makes him more of a man. In my youth I once believed that a man fights to get his voice heard now I understand that being a man means knowing when to take up arms. As a writer I once heard a story of white reporter being so frustrated about not having the opportunity to cover a story that he punched a hole in the newsroom wall. The editors saw this as nod to his tenacity and his willingness to get the job done. I saw this as borderline crazy and knew that if I ever reacted this way I would be labeled. In the end what I want is the space to be normal. To have justifiably crazy reactions to things that hurt. To see a scope of blackness that doesn’t look like exaggerated stereotypes of slave motifs. Cecil’s passive demeanor isn’t all right and neither is Louis extremism. As with most things black men we are somewhere in the middle: a crying, laughing, weakly brave middle that honestly looks a lot like our white counterparts.

The utterly frustrating part of the duality of black masculinity on screen and in real life is that it doesn’t afford for normalcy. Black men aren’t given the luxury of being mad at things that are simply maddening. We aren’t allowed the space to declare ourselves striving for success without wanting to be white. We are constantly teetering on the tightrope of being out of control and dangerous, or feeling castrated. The work on film and in real life is to push the spectrum of black masculinity to the degree that allows for other emotions besides conformity or rage.

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