Hollywood and Black America
Recently ‘ The Butler and Fruitvale Station, both Harvey Weinstein productions, arrived at my local “better” movie theater and settled down next to Woody Allen’s latest navel-gazing exercise. At the same time HBO was running The Help, a 2011 film that garnered BET’s Best Movie award. Harvey Weinstein was fresh on my mind from an article I had written on “How Commerce Trumped Art at Miramax” for the launch of the new journal Class, Race, and Corporate Power.
Over the last decade or so Weinstein has turned into an old-time studio boss. That made me curious to see what influence he had on two very different films about the Black experience in racist America. Meanwhile, the Disney Corporation, the parent company of Miramax for 17 years, distributed The Help, a film that I suspected would have much in common with Lee Daniels’ The Butler. According to Peter Biskind, the author of Down and Dirty Pictures, a history of independent filmmaking in the 1990s, Miramax had become “Disneyfied” while Disney was being “Miramaxized”. As arbiters of mainstream politics and culture, it is hard to imagine anything that could surpass Disney and Weinstein. Of course, the wild card was Fruitvale Station, a film by a young Black director that dramatized the cop killing of Oscar Grant in Oakland on the night of December 31, 2008, hardly the sort of fare expected to run cheek-by-jowl to Woody Allen’s privileged, white, narcissistic, fantasy.
When it comes to Hollywood and the Black experience, there is little doubt that the civil rights era did a lot to make films like Gone with the Wind and characters like the ones played by Stepin Fetchit relics of a horrible past. Watermelon eatin’ and shufflin’ along went into the ashbin of history. However, what replaced it was deeply flawed by a liberal paternalism that inevitably cast Sidney Poitier as the long-suffering victim of “intolerance”. Ironically, there is an argument set in 1960 over Poitier at the dinner table between Cecil Gaines, the eponymous lead character of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and his activist son with the father claiming that the actor was helping to “lift up the Negro people” and the son deriding the actor, and his father implicitly, as an Uncle Tom. Like much else in the film, it is a Black version of All in the Family but without the jokes. I doubt that Lee Daniels, his screenwriter, or any other principal involved with his film understood that they were not that different from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. All the problems in America are a function of “hatred”, for which the cure is replacing evil politicians by enlightened ones.
The Help is a “woman’s movie” very much in the Lifetime Cable TV vein set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 60s. It stars Emma Stone as Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a recent graduate of Ole Miss who is a kind of proto-feminist. She is far more interested in developing a career as a writer rather than getting married, raising kids, and joining the woman’s auxiliary of the White Citizen’s Council.
She cajoles the publisher of a local newspaper to give her a job but it is hardly the sort of thing that got Ernest Hemingway started. She is assigned to write the homemaker hints column, something she knows little about. Turning to Aibileen, a neighborhood maid, for help, she eventually is put into contact with other maids who have something to offer. A lightbulb then goes on over her head. Why not write a book based on the experience of humble African-American maids?
One of these maids is Minny (Octavia Spencer) who has been hired by Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a hapless housewife who does not even seem capable of boiling an egg. Minny, a world-class cook who has just been fired for using her boss’s bathroom during a tornado, comes to the rescue but under unusual circumstances. She has to leave before Celia’s husband comes home in the evening because he would not approve of her having hired someone just to teach her to cook.
Celia is portrayed as a slightly hysterical sort badly in need of help, not just in the kitchen. Despite being a southern belle, the inspiration for her character seems to be Butterfly McQueen’s turn as Prissy, the maid in Gone With the Wind who goes to pieces just before uttering the words “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies!” Change the race and make it cookin’ instead of birthin’ and you’ll have an idea about the kind of role the overexposed Jessica Chastain was playing.
Even more to the point, the film foreshadows the Paula Deen scandal. Minny’s gift to the world is making fried chicken apparently, a skill that Celia absorbs in order to preserve her marriage. Undoubtedly Paula Deen was much more skilled in the culinary arts starting out than Celia but not any less backward than the bigoted female characters. Accused falsely of stealing a particularly odious housewife’s diamond ring, Minny gets her revenge by presenting her a gift of a shit-laden chocolate pie, a variation on Jesse Jackson spitting into the food of whites who treated him badly when he worked in a restaurant. As is generally the case in this film, Black maids are incapable of collective action and rely on Skeeter to speak for them. When her book is finally published, they rejoice in the checks she sends them for services rendered.
Unlike the characters in the movie and the novel by Katherine Stockett it is based on, the real-life inspiration for Aibileen got nothing. Abilene Cooper, a maid who worked for Stockett’s brother, was shocked to see that a life very similar to her own was portrayed in the novel. When she sued for $75,000 in damages, the court predictably took the side of the author who claimed that she only spent fifteen seconds in Cooper’s company. Katherine Stockett’s brother took his maid’s side and agreed with her that the book’s Aibileen was not only identical to his long-time maid but was belittled throughout, especially in the way she described herself at one point: “That night after supper, me and that cockroach stare each other down across the kitchen floor. He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me.”
Somehow the living, breathing maid had the temerity to suggest that this characterization was an assault on her dignity despite all the awards the author had walked off with. Like Lisa Jackson, the cook who worked for Paula Deen, Abilene Cooper got the shitty end of the stick.
Since August first I have received twenty emails about Lee Daniels The Butler from The Weinstein Company, the new name for the same old Miramax, but not one about Fruitvale Station, a telling indication about their priorities. One suspects that Harvey Weinstein is putting all his money on the film in the hopes that it will walk off with a fistful of Oscars.
While there is a strong possibility that his investments will pay off, I would have advised the studio executive to have spent more on the screenplay, which is even more of a comic book than The Help.
Although the film is touted as African-American in its provenance by virtue of Lee Daniel’s direction, the screenplay is anything but. I was so appalled by the overdrawn characters, the ham-fisted plotting, and the cheap melodrama that the first thing I did after returning home from the theater was to look up the identity of the screenwriter. In my humble opinion, the screenplay is the movie.
For that dubious distinction, we look to Danny Strong, a 39-year-old Jewish actor who has exactly one writing credit to his name before The Butler. Strong was best known for playing Jonathan Levinson on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a nerdy high-school pal of Buffy who discovers his inner tough guy through mastery of black magic. Weinstein would have been better off hiring Josh Wheedon, the writer for the Buffy series, than Strong or, more usefully, a Black writer who knows something about the Black experience.
One scene in particular made me laugh at loud at Strong’s ineptitude. The butler’s son Louis and his girlfriend have become transformed from freedom riders believing in Gandhi to members of the Black Panther Party. No attempt is made to explain their transformation. They just show up at the dinner table with Louis wearing his beret as if it were a Jewish skullcap that is never removed and the girlfriend is adorned with an Afro of immense (and intentionally comical, in my view) proportions. In the course of the meal, she belches out loud—a sign no doubt that the Panthers meant business. Who knows? After some stilted dialogue back and forth about “the Man”, Cecil throws the couple out. The entire Black Nationalist experience in the United States is thus reduced to a scene from All in the Family.
The history of the Black struggle in the United States is transmitted through old newsreels seen either in the President’s office or in the living room of the Gaines family. As political commentary, we rely on the various Presidents offering pat observations on what is transpiring, with a frightfully aging Robin Williams as Eisenhower peeved over Orville Faubus causing trouble in Arkansas. In every one of these scenes, Cecil Gaines stands at attention ready to pour tea or remove dirty dishes, with nothing but a bland smile on his face. He has been taught from an early age to be a “house Negro” and is quite good at it, only becoming transformed in his late 60s into an elder statesman on the White House staff who reminds the white supervisor of the staff that Blacks are not paid the same as whites for doing the same work. Wouldn’t it be possible to give them a raise? In Strong’s version of civil rights history, this is tantamount to Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat. It is a sad commentary on Hollywood that movies are made about Cecil Strong, but not about Rosa Parks.
Ultimately, the real star of the movie is Barack Obama who is never seen but whose run for the presidency is backed fervently by the butler and his son, who got rid of his afro once he decided to launch a career as a Democratic Party politician. Father and son are already reconciled, just at the time that Obama is ready to occupy the Oval Office. The message of the film could not be any clearer: Obama represents the fulfillment of Black aspirations even as they suffer disproportionately.
I would be remiss if I did not include a reference to my colleague Armond White’s review of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. White, an African-American with ability to detect bad-faith and cant second to none, put it this way:
The Butler will feel inauthentic to most Americans who painfully, cagily work menial jobs; it is designed to appease condescending elites—what politicians call “the Middle Class”–who like to sentimentalize about workers who are beneath their regard (symbolized by the ever-changing line of Presidents, lightly satirizing the indifference of patronizing whites). The Butler may feature a largely Black cast under a Black director’s baton, but it’s really a movie for whites who seek self-congratulatory lessons rather than entertainment.
Even if you haven’t seen Fruitvale Station, you are likely familiar with the story, a by-now dreary tale of trigger-happy cops this time taking the life of an unarmed youth in a subway station captured on phone cameras that went viral, no doubt leading to the arrest of his killer.
The killing is depicted in the final moment of the film, which is much more about the quotidian struggle for existence by Oscar Grant, a young man just short of his 23rd birthday who had already served two terms in prison, one for dealing drugs. Having lost his job as a butcher in a supermarket, Grant is dealing marijuana once again on the day of his death. His decision to throw away the drugs in the San Francisco Bay in order to turn over a new leaf might have been a fictional touch, but there is little doubt that he was a responsible father and mate to his Mexican-American girlfriend.
Unlike the other two films under consideration here, director-screenwriter Ryan Coogler’s has the stamp of authenticity. Every word and gesture has both plausibility and dramatic weight, a testament to the wisdom of the advice given to all young writers: write from your own experience.
That being said, my hope is that Coogler can develop screenplays in the future that stick with the everyday lives of Black people and not look for stories of victimization, even if they are obviously deserving of attention. If there was any genre more in need of replenishment and renewal than neorealism, I cannot think of it. With so many slapstick comedies and cop buddy movies being the customary fare for Black actors, there is a crying need for drama about ordinary people scuffling to make a living, which is essentially what Fruitvale Station is about.
Coogler had the exact background to understand what made Oscar Grant tick. Hailing from Oakland with a father who is a probation office and a mother who is a community organizer, he has worked with youth offenders in San Francisco for the past six years while studying film. If Forrest Whittaker had any apologies to make for taking the role of Cecil Gaines, he redeemed himself through his backing of the film through his Significant Production company.
If Whittaker, a major player in Hollywood, had not stepped in, it is highly doubtful that Harvey Weinstein would have shown any interest. The simple truth is that for as long as I have been receiving Weinstein Company DVD’s submitted for New York Film Critics Online year-end awards, there has not been a single one before this directed or written by Black people except of course for the sorry Lee Daniels movie.
You can get an idea about Weinstein’s concerns for Black artists through his reaction to Spike Lee’s reaction to Pulp Fiction, a Miramax movie that fattened the corporation’s coffers and that made the merger with Disney possible.
Spike Lee had taken such exception to the Black characters calling each other “nigger” in “Pulp Fiction” that he even instructed one of his interns to count up the number of times the word was used: 38. Lee thought that Tarantino aspired to be an “honorary black man” after the fashion of the Danny Hoch’s role in Whiteboyz, a dark comedy about a farm boy who sees himself as an aspiring gangsta. After Weinstein’s golden boy Quentin Tarantino sought confrontations with Lee for his criticisms, Weinstein, who outweighs Lee by a hundred pounds, joined in: “If Spike wants to take his gloves off with me, come on.”
Despite Lee’s long history in the film business and his knack for making crowd-pleasing and profitable films, he has been afforded the same kind of treatment as the maids in “The Help”, being removed from a job as if he were a potted plant.
Lee was hired by Brian Grazer to write and direct a biopic about legendary rhythm and blues artist James Brown in 2006. For reasons known only to Grazer, Lee was fired last week and replaced by Tate Taylor, the white director of The Help. One can easily imagine Grazer now dumping Lee’s screenplay and putting Danny Strong on the job.
As is the case with just about everything in Hollywood, you cannot do anything without big capital behind you. Tyler Perry has become one of the richest men in Hollywood based on an ability to turn out garbage. When Perry decided to forgo his usual buffoonish fare destined for the Cineplex and get behind something “serious”, what did he decide to produce? You guessed it. Precious.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.com and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.