Like many of the films in the "it’s complicated" historical-fiction genre, Lee Daniels’ The Butler uses broad strokes to paint a decidedly unpretty picture — the cinematic equivalent of an Instagram filter.
But despite the artistic liberties and Forrest Gump-like rendering of the life of White House butler Cecil Gaines — based upon the true story of Eugene Allen — in its first week out The Butler has seemed to bob and weave past the reflexive reproof such movies usually attract.
Almost immediately, I noticed the stark difference in tone between critical discussion of The Butler and another similarly entitled film, The Help. Whereas this most recent film, jam-packed with big first names like Oprah, Cuba and Forest, has been toasted, The Help was trashed.
Early criticism of The Help — starring Viola Davis, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her leading role as Aibileen, a maid — was swift and unrelenting. As part of her publicity blitz in the lead up to the film’s release and the ensuing awards season, Davis spent as much time defending her choice to play Aibileen as she did promoting the film.
In an interview with newsman Tavis Smiley — who pointedly told Davis and her co-star, Octavia Spencer, "I want you to win, but I’m ambivalent about what you are winning for" — Davis had to explain herself.
"The black artist cannot live in a place, in a revisionist place. The black artist can only tell the truth about humanity, and humanity is messy, people are messy," said Davis. At this point the actress had had a lot of practice being on the defence.
"I’ve been under assault that the maid, the mammy, is a tired image, to which I respond and have responded that I created a character, a human being, and this is an important story to tell. It’s an important dialogue to have," said Davis in an interview with the Wall Street Journal right before the 2011 awards season.
None of Davis’ defensive tactics have been necessary for Forest Whitaker during the full-court publicity press for The Butler.
While on ABC’s The View, Whitaker said early positive responses to the film had been "universal." In an interview with the New York Times, the actor was asked about his methods, how he was able to convey his character’s "pride and struggle," and not why he’d decided to take on such a role. Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers asked Whitaker in an interview about the research involved in playing Cecil Gaines.
So far the most popular sentiment from the film — repeated in several interviews — is the notion that black domestics serving white families were, in fact, subversive.
"Just by their presence, by their dignity, by their dedication to their work, they were able to move things forward," explained Whitaker on Good Morning America.
This is a radical shift in thought when applied to the debate about the lack of nonstereotypical roles in mainstream Hollywood. From Hattie McDaniel onward, the debate about whether or not black actors and actresses (along with screenwriters, directors and producers) should ever play the roles of the maid or the butler has been ongoing. Davis couldn’t escape the backlash for her role in The Help in 2011, but just two years later Whitaker has.
The most obvious difference between Davis’ Aibileen and Whitaker’s Cecil is the characters’ gender. Then comes the issue of class and access. Aibileen is a maid in a middle-class enclave in Jackson, Miss., serving up chicken salad and changing diapers. Cecil is a tuxedoed butler at the most famous address in the United States, serving tea in fine china to the leaders of the free world. They both wear the uniform. They both wear two faces.
But Aibileen’s world is dominated by women. She does "women’s work" — cleaning, cooking, care-giving. Cecil, though just as invisible, occupies space crowded by men. He’s "in service" and "serving his country," as President Ronald Reagan (played by Alan Rickman) puts it.
I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to think that for most — despite the effusive testaments to the legacy of maids delivered by Oprah and the film’s director, Lee Daniels — the role of the maid, no matter how dignified, is still considered less significant. It’s a story that audiences, especially black ones, believe has been told before.
To be fair, The Help and The Butler are two distinct narratives. The white characters, though presidents and first ladies they may be, are ancillary to Cecil’s story. The Butler is woven around Cecil’s life. By contrast, in The Help, Aibileen’s story is tightly tied to those of the white women around her, a narrative device that didn’t sit well with some because it reinforces the notion that black women’s stories cannot stand on their own.
Still, the onslaught of accolades for the recent batch of films starring black men in historically complicated roles, from Jamie Foxx’s Django to Whitaker’s Cecil and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup in the upcoming Twelve Years a Slave, says something about how films featuring black actresses in similarly uncomfortable roles are perceived. And in a creative landscape where Harriet Tubman gets a "sex tape" instead of a starring role, I’m not sure if it says something good.
Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays.