I’m not black, so I viewed the films I’m about to talk about from the position of the privileged group. I’m going to talk about how I responded to them from that standpoint.
I’m seeing a lot of chatter about Selma being way too overlooked for awards this year. I have a speculation about that.
I’m going to talk about last year.
Last year, 12 Years a Slave (deservedly) did very well in the awards season. Another film that addressed race, The Butler, did not.
I saw jokes at the time that the public consciousness could not encompass more than a single film that had race as a theme. The sad-but-probably-true “The Butler never had a chance because people were already touting one film about black people, and we all know there can be only one per year.” That sort of thing. The Butler very well may have been eclipsed simply by bad luck and another (excellent) film people saw as filling the same “niche” (even though the too are vastly different stories) — maybe it’s just that 12 Years a Slave was extremely good and happened to be the one to catch the cultural zeitgeist.
But I have a different conjecture.
I’ve made a point of saying 12 Years a Slave is excellent, and that it deserved its awards recognition, because of what I’m about to say: I think The Butler was better.
But The Butler was also — speaking as someone who is not black, with all the societal privilege that entails — a far more uncomfortable film. Whereas 12 Years a Slave, while not precisely a comfortable viewing experience for anyone, was in many ways affirming to the privileged in its audience.
Part of this is simply time period. It’s hard to make a film about slavery — even an excellently-written, excellently-acted film that does not shy away from the grittiness of it — and make us question ourselves. After all, we don’t have a slave trade. We treat people better than that, in this modern day. This is a look back at history — a horrifying look back, but one that we tell ourselves we’re better people for not turning away from.
I’m not being sarcastic there — I do think it’s a good thing, that it does make us better people, not to look away.
But we can also, with perfect accuracy, tell ourselves that we are not those people. We modern folk are not the ones who kidnapped black people into slavery; we do not call them our property and beat them mercilessly. We can tell ourselves this, and feel a distance, feel we are better.
12 Years a Slave even gives us white people who are “good,” people we can pretend represent “us.” Brad Pitt’s character is framed as an eventual savior for the help he gives to Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s. We’d all like to think we would have been abolitionists, wouldn’t we? And the film never pushes us into a “there but for the grace of God” discomfort, of wondering what we would actually do, if we were in the position of the slave-owning class. Of course we’d help the unfairly-enslaved black man, like Brad Pitt!
More problematically, the one aspect of 12 Years a Slave that most bothered me in its writing was its focus on the injustice of Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s character being a free man who is kidnapped into slavery. It disturbed me that his plight feels narratively coded as worse than all the other slaves who were not free to begin with, when they are all being treated with rank injustice. None of the other slaves’ stories are given narrative weight that compares with the protagonist’s, and when he is, at the end, rescued from his hell, it is framed as a victory, despite all the people — who are equally people, even if, unfortunately, we have not come to know most of them in the film — he leaves behind. I found the ending of 12 Years a Slave coded as disturbingly optimistic in that regard.
In fact, I would have much preferred the film had been written to extend further, to the real-life complexities its historical inspiration dealt with: trying to bring charges against the men who kidnapped him and losing, working tirelessly after his return for abolitionism in an utterly messed-up world he had seen the worst of.
That’s not a clean ending, but it’s a real one.
The point is, 12 Years a Slave, for all that it asks us not to shy away from historical brutality, simultaneously offers us a swellingly victorious narrative: man unjustly kidnapped into slavery, man endures, man escapes and is reunited with his family, and lo, it is right.
The Butler, on the other hand, makes us walk away feeling as if nothing is right.
I’ll stress again that this is partly owing to time period. The Butler takes place spanning the latter half of the twentieth century, and as such has to work much less hard to make things personal for us. But it deliberately pokes us where it hurts, making those who are young enough wonder — there but for the grace of God and a few generations go I? — and those who are old enough stare into their own pasts rather than a long-distant one and ask hard questions.
With very few exceptions, The Butler never frames any of its characters as living the right way or the wrong one. We feel Forest Whitaker’s eponymous butler’s pride in being an impeccable employee and providing for his family, but we likewise feel his son’s frustration at the injustices black people face in American society, and the fear and anger that eventually drive him to more extreme ways of fighting back. Very little of it all, except at the extremes, is coded as good or bad — instead, it’s all real, and messy, with a masterful parallel between the racial tensions playing out in American and the conflict in one black family about the appropriate ways to act, react, fight back, move forward.
And we non-black viewers are not given heroes on a silver platter to relate to who were unequivocally fighting the good fight. For instance, one of the most powerful sequences in the movie is the run-up to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation in American history — and the juxtaposition of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s public speeches about equality against his n-word-laden dismissiveness toward his black domestic employees behind the scenes.
Nor does the movie ever declare a victory moment. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the more personal victories, such as our lead character finally receiving equal pay, are only small steps in a long, long journey that is twentieth- and twenty-first century race relations. To drive this home, when the protagonist and his son finally reconcile (after the former’s retirement, in the eighties) they’re shown going to a protest of South African apartheid.
In the eighties. That’s not very long ago at all.
And we all know apartheid ended, but the message of the film seems clear: this is a long road that has never ended, not completely, and even with the high note the movie ends on — Obama’s election — the race-related societal problems we face are not solved. There’s more work to be done, and we’ll have to keep doing it, and it will keep being messy and not clear-cut and sometimes we won’t know which way is right, and there are things we are doing right now that the future will cringe at.
I found The Butler a manifestly uncomfortable film, and I mean that in an excellent way. I saw both 12 Years a Slave and The Butler with the same (white) friend, and we agreed entirely on how they made us feel — both were unrelenting looks at history, but one focused on a history long past and allowed us to reassure ourselves that we, as a society, had done well since, and the other forced us to question ourselves, our parents’ generation, our own views of the world.
And when people have made not-serious-but-serious jokes about The Butler losing out because people couldn’t praise two films about race in one year, the cynic in me has wondered if — assuming it’s true that Academy voters felt they ticked their quota boxes with only one — if they chose the one that makes us non-black folk feel better about ourselves. I’ve been wondering that for a year now.
And now I see anger about Selma being snubbed come awards season. I haven’t seen it yet, but from what I hear, I suspect it is more like The Butler in that it not only privileges African-American voices and narratives, but does so in ways that make non-black people uncomfortable.
Which really, really makes me want to see it, because I think the best films are the ones that make me so uncomfortable while watching that they keep doing it after I leave the theatre. That make me think, and question my reality.
But I really do wonder if, at least subconsciously, if a lot of people who aren’t black don’t want to recognize a film that makes us feel that way. If Academy voters don’t want to turn the light of recognition on art that makes them squirm with its messy questions, a film that doesn’t leave any room for us to frame white people as the heroes, either as saviors of the black protagonists or the enlightened folk who have since saved American society with progress.
I don’t know if that’s the case, but I’m writing it here because all this has made me think, and I tend to believe that’s a useful thing.