Oprah Winfrey’s Butlers – Lee Daniels and Tyler Perry
I have a knot in my heart. It was in my throat, it moved along. Eventually, I am sure it will suffocate me if I don’t get this out. Black women, listen, we’ve got to stand up. We need to be mad as hell and not take it anymore.
The first person I encountered outside of the theater, as I went in to see ‘The Butler’, was a young black woman with a dishrag in her hand. She waited, patiently, for the men to exit the toilets so she could clean the bathroom. People like this woman and the butler have not been on black folk’s agenda for decades. So, why now? Is it simply a good story, provides a good arc and has potential for an Oscar run?
I watched Oprah’s talk show, continuously, for many years. Struggling after film school, I watched one of her home makeover shows. On the show, a lamp was apart of the makeover. She said something along the lines of “If you can’t afford this lamp, you are not doing something right.” The lamp was $20. I couldn’t afford it. And, I was one of those black people who had done everything right. I also thought about my family, in rural North Carolina, that lived in a trailer. At 23, I went to find my father’s family. They knew nothing about me (this is a story for another day). Anyway, fearless, I wanted to know this side of my family.
One cousin lived in a trailer. Children were everywhere. I mean, everywhere. And, the women were, what is considered, dark, overweight and opinionated. At 4pm, all of the women and children gathered around the television. I wondered what was going on. I asked what was coming on. “Oprah”, my cousin said. She then gave me a side eye and asked, “You got any children?” I knew a ‘no’ was going to bring harsh judgment. But, I gripped the couch and, barely, uttered the word, “No.” Oprah’s show began, thank goodness. No one in that room, in full support of and offering unconditional love to Oprah, could afford that lamp.
We cannot underestimate her influence on American culture. We cannot yet determine how her presence has impacted the landscape. Unlike my mother’s generation, I grew up hearing conversations about child molestation, abuse against women, all of the things that remained in the shadows for centuries. Oprah brought all of that to the center of the conversation. She made it visible. In this regard, she is a heroine of the highest order. To speak, in spite of the shame that sexual violation rains upon you, is serious. And, she did it before the world. And, she did it in triumph.
I watched Oprah’s performance in ‘The Butler’ and I thought about her ‘lamp’ statement. I wondered if the character she portrayed could have afforded that lamp. Would that lamp have been a priority for her character? And, yes, probably. The film is an homage to the middle class. It honors hard work, discipline, loyalty to family, black men who put family before “running the streets”. Unfortunately, we are never inside of the Butler’s head. We don’t experience what he thinks or feels about the unique situation he is in. This is a script issue. The writer didn’t see the world through his eyes.
I am not anti-‘The Butler’. I do not feel that ‘The Butler’ is the male version of the ‘The Help’. I do think Lee Daniels is thoughtful about his work. I do think he has an agenda. What that is, I don’t know. I think the Butler’s story is a moving one. Do I think Lee pulled it off in this film, no. I think it is Lee’s best film to date. So far, he has directed ‘Precious’ and ‘Shadow Boxer’. You can determine if this being his “best film” is significant in light of his track record.
I am, however, anti-Precious. The film was exaggerated horror and poverty pornography. Like Sapphire, I knew the population that she worked with. I, too, worked with girls in group homes. Girls that have survived unthinkable horrors. And, let me tell you, like Oprah, they are some of the most creative, complex and extraordinary girls on the planet. I have known girls that got their heads bashed into the sidewalk by their mother and could dress up in a fierceness that would shame a Parisian runway. Trauma does not equal despair, fatigue or isolation. Depression is not the only result.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was in consideration to write the screenplay for ‘Push’. Ultimately, Lee made his choice. And, it would have been a much different movie had I penned it. But, I went to see it with an open mind and heart, hoping the best for Lee Daniels. Because, in my eyes, black representation trumps all. It is not about me, it is about the images that, ultimately, wind up on the screen. And, to me, Precious was beyond disappointing. But, you see, it received “the stamp” from Sundance, etc. A stamp that was misplaced because white liberals wouldn’t know an “authentic” black narrative if it hit them in the face. It is easier to accept the idea that black people are depraved, grotesque and horrifying than to understand our nuance. But, Lee Daniels got what he wanted- a platform for his demons.
Where am I going with this? Here. And, perhaps you can help me. For the life of me, I cannot understand why Ms. Winfrey supports black filmmakers whose work denigrates black women. Yes, I am referring to Tyler Perry and Lee Daniels. Help me to understand this. Madea?! Madea. Really?!
Now, mind you, I have had to make sense of Madea for myself. Clearly, black people are underrepresented in cinema. Elderly black women, especially. Church going women as well. I get it. There is an emotional connection to the “idea” of Madea that black people may be responding to. Unfortunately, it is hyperbolic and exaggerated. Kind of like Precious, but, the opposite. I’ve watched Tyler Perry’s stage shows on youtube. Only because I needed to understand what people were watching. Okay, I get it. Where in American culture, are you going to hear someone crooning Vandross or Phil Perry? There is an emotional connection, a validation of experience in Tyler Perry’s work that folks can’t get elsewhere.
And, I believe in freedom of expression. So, here’s mine. We have to expect better. We have to do better. We have to stop making a joke out of black women. We have to stop looking at black women as the shrew. Which is what Oprah was in the butler. Oprah was in a Tennessee Williams play while everyone else was in the movie ‘The Butler’. Oprah appears to be angling so hard for an Oscar that she cut off from the rest of the cast and did her own thing. The moments where she showed serious chops were when she was in step with the cast.
Oprah was in a film where the two lead black women were foul (although Yaya DaCosta was a beautiful representation of a black woman from that period). Lee, ultimately, maligned Yaya’s character. He built up this amazing black woman only to undercut all that he had done in one, ridiculous, moment. The two women then go on to detest one another. The black men in the film, however, take care of each other.
Honestly, the best thing about ‘The Butler’, well, other than Forest Whitaker’s sublime performance, was the camaraderie of the black men. That was a thing of beauty. And, it was good to see a relationship between a black man and a black woman that unfolded over time. But, honestly, for most of the film, I wondered why the butler was with such a, glaringly, haunted woman. It made no sense. Oprah’s character could have been sister to the mother in Precious. Did Oprah and Mo’nique share the same acting coach? Oprah has gifts that are unique to her that were not called upon. Oprah’s charm, wit and intellect are her light. Blinded by trinkets like ‘The Oscar’, we got regurgitated Mo’nique.
Why is Oprah supporting these “filmmakers” who have shown very little respect for black women? Is the dream of ‘the Oscar’ and the cash flow all that important? Perhaps it is. As Oprah stated, she still has dreams. One of them, it seems, is to get an Oscar. And, let me tell you, these black folks are going to get that Oscar if it kills them. Even if they have to pay for it. That’s cool, that’s the marketplace. But, in the midst of the journey, can we show some love to black women? Oprah knows our story. Oprah is aware of the particular pains that black women experience. Is it fair to burden her with “proper representation”? No, I am not asking for that. I love drama. I love haunted characters. I believe in exalted drama. It is possible to work with people who write the hell out of the black experience with sensitivity and depth. Find them! Ms. Winfrey, have a black woman write the Henrietta Lacks story because NO ONE, NO ONE, will write her life like a black woman writer. A black woman who understands what it is to be violated in the most intimate regions of our being.
Recently, a friend sent a video interview to me. In the interview, Oprah asks Tyler Perry (of all people), “Why is it, that you think, Hollywood doesn’t see a consistent space for roles for black women?” The real question is, why don’t you two see a consistent space for talented black women writers and filmmakers? That’s the question. Why aren’t you all employing and lifting us up?! Black women will flock to the theaters if Oprah began to create portraits of black women that sing us true. The way to make this happen is to hire black women to tell our fucking stories. And, if you don’t know where to find us ask Lee Daniels, he knows.
As we prepare for the 50th anniversary of the ‘March on Washington’ let us all remember, ain’t nobody cared about the butler or the woman cleaning the toilets -for generations. The Black 1% has to learn to lift up all black folks -not just the ones whose stories have the potential to garner an Oscar or a bright new shiny lamp.
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Article Appears in Shadow and Act