By Andrea Plaid
Here it goes: I love Forest Whitaker’s butler, and I love Viola Davis’ maid.
I don’t like The Butler or The Help, really; both films are textbook examples of the histrionic, sanitized history (especially the recent history of US race relations) that serves as Oscar bait. For all of that, though, I love Whitaker’s character Mr. Gaines and Davis’ Abilene for the reason Dr. Martin Luther King (played by Nelsan Ellis in The Butler) stated: historically, Black butlers and maids were subversive, not subservient, because by being hardworking and trustworthy they belied white folks’ racist notions of Black folks being lazy and criminal.
Whitaker and Davis made similar choices in characterizations: Both hold their characters’ emotions in their eyes, which lent Mr. Gaines and Abilene, respectively, interiorities that move beyond mere stoicism. Both display the “two faces” to full effect–one face that offers a smile and appropriate silence and responses to White people, and the other face a fuller expression of life, opinions, and emotions to other Black folks, away from the white gaze. That duality allowed them to do their jobs under racism’s duress while protecting their souls until they could get back to the relative emotional safety of their segregated communities. Both actors show the utility of the tactic in one-on-one interactions with White people, which, according to the movies, may have allowed them to tell their own stories and share opinions that created more opportunities for African Americans and moved race relations forward. And both actors also show the tactics toll on their emotional lives and connections with their own families. At the end of both The Butler and The Help, both drop the tactic and, in the process, retain and expand their dignity into their lives and activism, be it in not accepting another domestic job, in the case of the latter, or joining their child’s activist efforts.
I know the conflict between Mr. Gaines and his activist son, highlighted in trailers for The Butler, put off quite a few people from seeing the film. But I also know that sort of conflict was real between generations and that it stemmed from respectability politics–a veneer of propriety that Gaines Senior donned with those two faces to represent us every day and that Gaines Junior attempted to dismantle by working with King and the Black Panthers. The younger Gaines ultimately walked away from the Panthers, because he couldn’t stomach the violence the movie suggests was the cornerstone of the group’s ethos, though he stayed in progressives politics like the anti-apartheid movement. Mr. Gaines eventually joins his son at the protest, after years of the indignity of not getting paid equitably and watching and living the turbulent changes in US race relations. Gaines the Elder left the job because he couldn’t stomach then-President Reagan’s apartheid-enabling stance.
But, as my mom says, white folks’ racism has paradoxed* us. Whereas some Black folks who took domestic jobs saw the positions as a way to optimally display our humanity by quietly defying stereotypes to the white folks we interacted with in our otherwise de jure segregated lives, white folks took the behavior (the more obsequious of the “two faces” Mr. Gaines’ mentor taught him to employ in order to keep his job and his dignity besides) as a totalizing stereotype, namely that the best kind of Black folks were (and still are) subservient ones, and that any Black person who “deviated” from that trait was a “bad Negro.” That employing the “two faces” was a professional–and even an activist–tool and/or philosophy is wiped out in this paradoxing because, well, Black folks are also stereotyped as not smart enough to think tactically or philosophically. That’s partly why the white people supporting the racist structures in the South, in Washington, DC, and all points in between and beyond, considered Dr. King such a threat, even as some folks nowadays see the civil rights leader as, at best, a milquetoast and, at worst, ineffective.
Sometimes, in our vociferous protests that seeing yet another TV show or film featuring a Black person as a butler or maid is an affront to our race and humanity, the subtle message is that we not only don’t want to be reminded of our past, but we may not want to see the people still doing domestic work in our present. Those maids and butlers were–and still are–our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, deacons, church mothers, pastors, and neighbors. And those very folks who took (and still take) their “two faces” to those jobs not only supported–and still support–us in material and emotional ways, such as, say, encouraging us toward and paying for vocational training and advanced degrees, but also in activist ways, like dropping a few extra dollars in the offering plate for bail money for the Civil Rights protesters when they couldn’t or wouldn’t put their own feet in the streets.
Considering the constant stereotypes about African Americans catapulted in pop culture, it’s easy and understandable to long to see ourselves as heirs of African kings and queens, spiritual children of Malcolm X and Angela Davis, and cousins of Olivia Pope. And it’s just as easy and understandable to roll our eyes and criticize the characters of Mr. Gaines and Abilene because some of us see them as the latest variations of the very stereotypes that we believe Civil Rights and the other movements for Black humanity and the dignity it deserves fought against.
The thing is, though, criticizing Mr. Gaines and Abilene stems from the troubling idea that images about ourselves need to still be righteous at all times–and the roles of maids and butlers simply aren’t ass-kickingly right on. But quiet dignity can kick just as much as being a firebrand–remember, historically speaking, it was those very same maids and butlers who used their own masks that grinned and lied to gain access and trust and instigate quite a few rebellions on U.S. plantations. And it was maids and butlers who, during the Jim Crow era, served as the face of Black dignity when white people ruled that they could legally separate themselves and us from constant reminders of it. And Mr. Gaines and Abilene are the fictional counterparts of those real-life domestic workers who donned the two faces so that we can demand that this racist society face our full humanity and dignity.
So, to take my mom’s advice, I take Mr. Gaines’ and Abilene’s subversively professional dignity with pride. They would have been proud of me.
*To paradox: to create a contradictory idea or image through certain social conditions and then state and act as if it is the natural condition of the person/people/situation, such as racist laws and common practices that create job situations in the Jim Crow era where Black people, particularly Black women, go into domestic work, then turn around and say that Black women are “naturals” at it.
When using this term, please attribute it to Squeezed Between Feminism.