Something happened as I sat down to watch The Butler last night. I arrived early to the private screening. The majority of the 200 attendees were white, older, some recognizable from television. I chatted with the woman next to me – her vibe, warm and friendly. She liked my J’s (I was wearing my favorite 1’s). I liked her scarf, colorful against her pale skin. We both remarked how there weren’t enough seats for everyone.
I’d been invited as media, asked to write about the film. She had received her invitation from the Academy of Arts & Sciences, of which she is a member. She’d brought her pre-teen daughter for some Saturday night bonding. We both settled into our respective agendas as the lights dimmed.
Within the first three minutes we were shown an unrecognizable Mariah Carey and David Banner in heart-breaking circumstance and two young Black men embracing at the end of a pair of nooses. I pulled my phone (with the screen dimmed) from the pocket of my hoodie at the exact moment Larry King reached for his. We both appeared to make note of the same quote when I heard two sharp finger snaps.
“HEY GIRL, YOU PUT THAT AWAY!”
I turned to the older white woman in the row behind me, leaning over two strangers to get closer to me as she yelled, “You put that away RIGHT NOW!” She snapped her fingers again and mumbled something under her breath about ‘these people.’
“I’m working,” was all I said and turned back to the screen just in time to see David Banner – kneeling between rows of cotton – warn his young son that the world they live in belonged to whites and their mere survival hinged on his ability to not make waves.
The Butler is an unapologetic look at the Black experience, through the eyes of a man whose survivalist subjection allowed him to be a fly on the governing walls of four US Presidents.
While I went into the theater expecting a film on race, I left having seen a film about Blackness. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.
The Butler is filled with cultural inside jokes that the 25 or so African-American attendees (mostly press), got instantly. The characters, rounder than we’re used to seeing, darker skinned, many far from the silver screen standard of beauty could’ve easily been our grand parents, aunts and uncles. Terrence Howard was everyone’s shiftless neighbor and despite missing his front tooth, charmed Oprah into an affair. Even Lenny Kravitz – who in real life manages to look sexy walking down the street in last Tuesday’s clothes and a man purse – was down played to just another handsome Black man who married a big sassy Black woman in an obvious wig.
But as I sat there, a row in front of an offensive White woman, drunk from her own entitlement, watching painful truths about the history of my people in this country, I couldn’t help but wonder: What does ‘Black’ mean now? 2013 – long after we’ve twice elected a black president but failed to convict the killer of a black teenager – what is the ethos of this culture of mine?
I grew up Black – not just as a race but a verb. Weddings in church basements, in households where Martin Luther and Luther Vandross were equally revered. We attended home goings that lasted from day into night. My aunt, the crackhead, would do anything for you – just don’t leave your purse around her. Summers meant family reunions in matching shirts that always alternated between yellow, purple and red. And our grand parents raised me, along with a number of my cousins. And every time we’d hear of a particularly heinous (or stupid) crime we’d collectively wish aloud, “I hope he’s not Black.”
What does that matter now? Questlove can write a deeply vulnerable essay about his struggles through life as the big Black boogieman and a feminist will reply evoking the unspoken 28th amendment, ‘don’t scare the long-suffering white women’. Harry Belefonte – historically one of our greatest cause leaders can publicly cannibalize two of our brightest stars, prompting one to respond with a near repulsive arrogance. And then there’s Don Lemon who was foolish enough to ride in on Bill O’Reilly’s bigoted coattails to deliver his remedy for Black salvation. But while his timing was regrettable and his O’Reilly association is reckless, were his five elementary rules completely wrong? Somewhere, a skinny Al Sharpton is still marching.
Meanwhile George Zimmerman is riding through America in a Honda with a gun, helping victims trapped in cars and racking up speeding tickets.
It’s a confusing time for Black messaging.
At one point during the film I pretended not to listen as the friendly White woman next to me quietly explained to her teenage old daughter who Jesse Jackson was. From the corner of my eye I could see her squirm at the on screen dramatized acts of hatred and ignorance then go silent, as the each scene was bookended with actual footage – as if to say “we’re not making this stuff up.”
Does being Black matter to anyone but me? Is white privilege the now oppression? Should we act better to be treated better or should we act out until we’re equal? Black chicken meet White egg.
Oprah is a light in such a dark and heavy film. Beginning with Miss Sofia, into The Women of Brewster Placeon through Beloved, Winfrey seems to gravitate towards burdened characters and Gloria Gaines – an alcoholic housewife is no different. But it’s her free moments – her comedic asides, her lackluster dancing, her drunken rambling – that remind you that despite all of her reverence Oprah really is a Black woman from Mississippi.
Winfrey recently said she has absolutely zero tolerance for the word ‘nigger.’ Not surprisingly, the film touches on this as well. After describing himself as a ‘house nigger’ a young Cecil Gaines is told not to use the word invented by Whites to demean Blacks. This comes when I find myself wrestling with my use of the word ‘nigga.’ It’s been so ingrained within me to be powerless, until it’s heard coming from the lips of someone who does not see me as their equal. My justification has been, ‘we’ve earned it.’ We survived a systematic conspiracy against us. Why shouldn’t we have the right to limp away with the word, free to repurpose it as we see fit?
That reasoning is making less sense to me as I get older and see young kids of all races take liberties with it. It’s the equivalent of being freed from prison only to keep the orange jumpsuit to accessorize and wear later, out to the club.
The Butler raises interesting points about the constant tight rope we still walk daily as Blacks in America. We are still persecuted. We are still statistically unequal. We were freed from cages, only to be leashed. And now, as we suffer from systemic division, we routinely noose ourselves. This film – and my viewing experience reminded me there is still nothing black and white about being Black.
As the film ended, I saw the obnoxious woman in the hallway. I politely introduced myself. She stared at my hand before enduringly shaking it and reluctantly telling me her name. She’s a longtime member of the press. Midst my explanation that I was merely taking notes, she cut me off.
“I don’t know who raised you but you don’t turn on your phone in a theater. It’s rude and of low-class.”
I reminded her that it was rude to snap your fingers and yell at another adult. She gave me a once over making no attempts to hide the judgment at my sneakers, oversized hoodie and backwards baseball cap. I made no attempt to apologize for it. Her contempt became annoyance as a couple of people stopped to ask for my picture.
“If you were offended by my actions girl, then I’m sorry, I don’t know what to tell you.”
I was her second use of ‘girl’ that stamped the incident with the all-too-familiar seal of white privilege. Nevermind that yelling at me was far more disruptive than my dim screen. Or that several people were taking notes. Ironically, she’d taken one look at me and determined that whatever she had accomplished in her life warranted her to treat me as if I were The Butler.
I didn’t go off on this woman because she expected me to. A shouting match would’ve undoubtedly ended in us me being asked to leave. The irony of the situation was lost on her.
The Butler began by quoting MLK, “You cannot drive out darkness with darkness. Only light can do that.”
I sighed and softly laid my hand on her shoulder. She flinched. I looked her in eyes and said, “Yes, you aresorry. You are very, very sorry.”
Appalled, she asked me to repeat myself. I did so happily and as she began with, “Now I don’t know who you think you…” I turned away and went to say hello to someone I knew and respected.
Jasfly is a blogger based in NYC. She also appeared on VH1’s The Gossip Game. This article was originally posted on jasfly.tumblr.com