How (Not) to Bow: Lee Daniels' The Butler

08/21/2013 06:09 pm ET | Updated Oct 21, 2013

It was one of those lazy August afternoons, and I was busy working at not preparing for my first lecture of the academic year. My colleague had dropped into my office to chew what was left of the summer fat, when suddenly she asked me: "So, what did you think of The Butler?" I had not prepared myself to weigh in on this year's latest installment of "Which Blackness?" but it would not have been fair to avoid the question, having just seen it, and with she, having just decided she was joining another colleague in a bit of boycott of this, and all films, portraying African Americans in subservient roles. I explained my liking of the film the only way academics can: I further complicated the question and gave a long-winded answer.

Here is the short version.

Lee Daniels' The Butler works in the same way this year's Jackie Robinson film and Steven Spielberg's Lincoln work. They are sort of cinematic versions of Norman Rockwell's art. In the best sense, they tell a compelling story that foreswears lots of historical untidiness, for a broader, bigger Truth (yes, the one with the capital "t"). They are enjoyable fare as far as it goes, but we are well removed from sensational filmmaking here. But, rather than end it at that, I think it is worth noting what The Butler does accomplish -- and much of it has to do with what Forest Whitaker (and of course, Lee Daniels) does with his character, Cecil Gaines. To watch Whitaker as a White House butler is to engage one of the great Negro (and I use that word purposefully, here) archetypes in American literary and cinematic history. But, it is how Whitaker channels the role that redeems not only the film, but the entirety of black domestic workers from the chorus of "handkerchief head" opprobrium heaped upon them over the centuries.

Put simply, Whitaker's butler is a study of a man shedding an imported identity. This is what Franz Fanon would have called his "White Mask" and what W.E.B. DuBois referred to as his other consciousness. We see Gaines as a happy white-gloved charmer of whites. "When it comes to cognac," he nearly coos to a table of white guests, "I believe the French have a distinct advantage." One could almost hear Malcolm X off-camera, scream out: "Negro, please!" Early on, Gaines is subservience personified -- even dignified (this is precisely what Paula Deen had in mind, I suspect: classy obsequiousness, "the kind you can't find any more"). Daniels does help us see that such a persona comes within the context of a society where rape, lynching, and murder are in fact crime-less acts when committed against African Americans. "Toming" is not a pleasure-sport; it's survival.

And as we walk through much of the 20th Century struggle for civil rights, Daniels plays the neatest trick on the Butler as Archetype, and perhaps his all-too complacent audience. Gaines' greatest sense of self-awareness and personal victory come from seeing himself from the outside looking in. An invited guest at a Reagan White House dinner -- he sees himself exposed by watching his black comrades-in-arms, serving Ronnie, and Nancy and the rest, with feigned pride and pleasure. Whitakers' eyes move so delicately and painfully in the film, he is more Caravaggio than Rockwell in his deep, penetrating honesty. He is a man made sick from his own dishonesty. That State dinner scene is when the butler (and The Butler) becomes something new in the American tradition of black storytelling. No longer "seeing through a glass darkly," Gaines has become enlightened at the peak of his "success." And that very enlightenment is so full of sorrow and grace held together, that one can nearly read Fanon and DuBois off the furrowed brow of Whitaker.

So, yes, the film has its shortcomings. The casting is uneven, shall we say. Robin Williams will remind you of Dwight Eisenhower the way I remind people of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. John Cusack gives it a go as Nixon, and Jane Fonda makes for a better Nancy than the one I remember, but all of this is sideshow. What matters is Lee Daniels has made no retrograde film, even if Hollywood has an insatiable appetite for Blackness with Dishes. On the contrary, he has made a valuable contribution with his Butler. It is the difference between bowing inside one's soul, or, simply bowing on the outside. That small shift was the difference in the film, and indeed, one must say, the Black freedom struggle.

Saladin Ambar teaches political science at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. He is the author of Malcolm X at Oxford Union (February 2014, Oxford University Press) and How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency (University of Pennsylvania Press).