12 Years a Slave Versus Lee Daniels’ The Butler

What the Academy Still Needs to Get Right About Black Narratives in Film

Movies Features 12 Years A Slave
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“I like Shame [2011] as much as 12 Years a Slave, but Hollywood likes the idea of a black director directing 12 Years a Slave more than it likes the idea of a black director directing Shame.” —Kanye West

“I actually remember when I first came to have meetings in L.A. after I did Hunger [2008] and people thought I was white. I think often people try to ghettoize others because they have an idea about who they think you are rather than who you are.” —Steve McQueen, Interview Magazine, January 2014

Last year was considered by many to be one of the biggest, most exciting times for black film, and the 2014 awards season, culminating with Sunday’s Academy Award win for Best Picture by Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, has proved that narratives about the African-American experience are welcome at the Hollywood table. Our own film editor Michael Dunaway discussed the sheer magnificence of 2013 with Oscar-winner and Paste’s Film Person of the Year Forest Whitaker who—donning many hats—had much to do with the success of many of these projects (including Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Fruitvale Station and Black Nativity). Still, it has to be acknowledged that this language we use, this celebration of the great “year for African-American cinema” is still troubling, still problematic.

In the January 2014 issue of Interview Magazine McQueen spoke with rapper/producer/designer/frequent ranter Kanye West and—in a conversation that covered just about everything—they talked briefly about race and what it means to be a black creative in a world with preconceived (and often inconsistent) notions about what black artists should be making. Interestingly enough, McQueen and West are aligned on some level now—they are fans of each other’s work, artistic collaborators (they worked together for Yeezy’s 2013 MTV VMA performance), and both had critically acclaimed projects last year that are still getting plenty of buzz and garnering awards this year. West would go on to tell McQueen that he was tired of hearing that his Yeezus world tour was a great rap tour, as opposed to just being a great tour. Similarly, it would be nice to look back at 2013 as a great year for film, and to know that alongside Gravity, American Hustle and Her, stood 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, 42 and Fruitvale Station.

But according to the Academy, only Steve McQueen’s film deserves firm footing alongside the best achievements in cinema. Although it was great to see all of the films represented during this most recent Oscar ceremony (with images of Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson and Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines splashed across a few montages of last year’s best films), ultimately only McQueen’s film was formally recognized by Academy voters. Many have pointed out the snubbing of Lee Daniels’ The Butler (by both the Golden Globe Awards and the Academy Awards), but this so-called snubbing might point to a favoring of one particular black narrative over another. What might such favor signify? Why the Oscar nod to McQueen’s work, and not Daniels’?

The goal here is not to argue that The Butler was as powerful or as Oscar-worthy as 12 Years a Slave. McQueen’s film may very well be the better of the two, may in fact be deserving of more accolades. And indeed, the Best Picture win was and is a great moment for black film and the world of cinema in general. But there are some glaring differences between the way these stories were told—specifically in their treatment of the white characters and in the treatment of women—that may cast light on the Academy’s preferences.

From the moment that Solomon Northup (the protagonist in 12 Years, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is captured and sold out of freedom and into slavery, we know that he will only succeed if he can make himself—his true, born-free self—visible to white people. In The Butler, we learn that the protagonist, Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker), will only succeed if he can make himself invisible to white people. Solomon Northup’s whole world depends on the white gaze. Similarly, the character of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) suffers unimaginable cruelty—rape, whippings, and all manner of physical attacks because of the gaze of her slaver (Michael Fassbender) and his wife (Sarah Paulson). When Solomon gets the attention of the one, decent white man with whom he comes into contact (Brad Pitt), he regains his freedom.

For Cecil Gaines, however, financial freedom and stability in a very shaky time are wholly dependent on his ability to be unseen by the white people he serves. He advances to a position in the White House with the tutelage of a black man (Clarence Williams III), who schools him in the fine art of invisibility. He is taught early on that the White House rooms must feel “empty” when he is present and serving; he cannot respond to conversation; he is a ghost. Each president he serves is eventually drawn to him for one reason or another, but we see them coming to the butler for some sort of salvation. You could argue that this is the stereotypical Magical Negro trope, but Gaines is often practically disinterested—he’s there to work for his family, not to help a white man through an existential, physical or moral crisis. And the point in the film where he is most embraced by the white characters—his invitation to a White House dinner—actually leaves him in a very real state of depression.

But we watch 12 Years knowing that Solomon’s only way home is to gain the ear of a good-hearted white man. This is absolutely not a critique of the narrative, which is, for one, based on Northup’s own memoirs. And as our own critic Annlee Ellingson notes, there really was no other way:

“As nuanced as Cumberbatch and Fassbender are in their performances, though, their respective archetypes as kindly and cruel are clear-cut, and when producer Brad Pitt shows up on the scene as a Canadian abolitionist, he’s positively angelic, a downright savior—and white. (But then what other honest outcome could there be? This isn’t a Quentin Tarantino revenge fantasy, after all.)”

It’s important to note that the white savior in black films is often an issue, especially when Oscar season rolls around. Many people felt like the 2011 film The Help garnered acclaim because it was told from the perspective of a young, white woman. Halle Berry’s Leticia in Monster’s Ball was “saved” by a white man (Billy Bob Thornton’s Hank), and Denzel Washington played the bad black guy to Ethan Hawke’s good white guy in Training Day and received an Oscar.

But McQueen’s white characters—saviors and villains alike—are complicated. 12 Years a Slave is not just concerned with the effects of slavery on the enslaved, but also the dehumanizing effects on the participating whites. And his approach to filming the most brutal scenes—those long shots with no cutaways—tells us that he has no intention of merely hinting at the worst of slavery. It’s tempting to align him, again, with Kanye West, for neither artist made room for subtlety in their most recent projects. With songs like “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead,” the lyrics throughout Yeezus about race and class (among other things) are as in-your-face as McQueen’s depictions of beatings and violence on the slave plantations. Which is not to say there are not subtle moments in 12 Years. (The burial of Abe, for example, and the moment when Solomon begins singing with the other enslaved blacks is a quiet, brilliant scene where Ejiofor delivers an especially moving performance.) Nor is The Butler the more subtle work. But in the same way that memoirs of former slaves were a huge tool in the abolitionist movement (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, for example), 12 Years seems to serve a purpose that goes beyond telling a fascinating story. It is a tool, which is partly why it is now being brought into high schools for units on slavery. McQueen’s intention may very well have been to create a work like this, especially since he came out and said that he hoped Northup’s story would one day be as well-known as Anne Frank’s.

If we had to align The Butler with a musical equivalent, we might consider Kendrick Lamar’s debut album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Kendrick’s concern for race and racial politics is slightly more veiled than Kanye’s—lyrically, he sticks closely to his neighborhood and to specific stories from his childhood, with songs like the title track, “Money Trees,” and “Backseat Freestyle.” While The Butler is absolutely educational, it does not seem especially concerned with becoming a teaching guide. Like good kid, m.A.A.d. city, this narrative is more concerned with telling a very specific story. For the most part, Daniels creates a portrait of a family, one that wouldn’t easily translate into a lesson plan. (In fact, the only time it really began to suffer as a film was toward the conclusion, when the narrative arc got far too broad far too quickly, as it tried to move from the ’70s to present day, covering all of the big political happenings, and culminating with the election of Barack Obama.)

And then there is this issue of the treatment of women. In 12 Years we have two women as supporting characters—Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o, now the winner of a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) whom we love (and desperately want to reach through the screen and rescue), and Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) whom we loathe; she is the true villain of the movie, worse even than Fassbender’s character. This is an all-too familiar trope, where a woman is either angel or demon, a damsel in distress or a complete witch. Of course, Patsey has a true strength about her, and one could even argue that Mistress Epps is a pitiable character, but they really do operate on opposite ends of the spectrum, with one as the persecutor and the other as the victim.

The Butler presents us with much stranger characters. Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines is brilliant and completely unrecognizable. Her character is complicated—is she the good, supportive wife, or is she an alcoholic who selfishly has an affair while her husband works tirelessly to provide for the family? There’s some ambiguity about this in the movie, but she is certainly neither just one or the other. And then there’s Yaya Alafia’s role. At first we think Carol Hammie is going to be the love interest of David Oyelowo’s character (Louis Gaines), but by the end of the film we learn that she is not especially interested in being anyone’s wife, and eventually joins the Black Panther Party. Unlike Louis, she joins with the real intention of taking the lives of whites. She’s not looking for a savior and doesn’t seem to need one.

These observations are made with the understanding that both stories, for the most part, take place in wildly different times (pre-Civil War 1800s versus the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and beyond), but it can still be observed that McQueen and Daniels tell their stories in very specific ways. The white supporting cast in McQueen’s film are a huge part of the narrative, and these actors (including Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Dano) deliver powerhouse performances. While The Butler brought out some big names for the supporting cast (James Madsen, Robin WIlliams, John Cusack and Liev Schreiber), these performances do not make or break the story; the presence of the characters—even as United States presidents—is ultimately marginalized. There is no real concern for the psychology of these men. Some might argue that this is part of what makes 12 Years the better film, and the best picture of 2013.

But another interpretation suggests that The Butler offers no opportunities for white characters to vindicate themselves. They are neither villain, nor savior. The story—at its best—is heavily focused on Gaines (the butler) and his son, Louis (the activist). The political turmoil and upheaval of the time is almost a means to an end—the end being the story of the Gaineses, from a generation of cotton pickers to near-White House royalty. And because of all this—because his white characters are marginalized, because his black women characters are complex and not easily pinned down, because his film is the story of a black family without any Magical Negroes or White Saviors, one wonders if Lee Daniels has created an excellent work that simply does not utilize enough of the usual tropes to make it Oscar-friendly. If that is the case, the Academy still has quite a bit of growing up to do, particularly in terms of its understanding of a strong, black narrative.

The Saga Continues
No doubt, there are surely folks shaking their heads and saying—what’s there to complain about? If 2013 was a great year for black film, and a story about the black experience was nominated for nine Oscars, and took home three—including the highest honor of Best Picture—isn’t that great progress? And yes, it is! But, even if you’re not a fan of his work or his antics, Kanye West is proof that there’s always a desire for more. West is a Grammy Award-winning artist who still rants about the Grammys because he knows that even his critical acclaim comes with certain boundaries and limitations. He can win Best Rap Album (although he didn’t this year, nor did Kendrick Lamar), but he has little chance of winning Album of the Year. (Lauryn Hill and Outkast are the only rap artists to have ever won in this category.) This year’s Oscars have shown us that a film about a black man who survived 12 years of his life as a slave can win Best Picture, but such a win will function as a huge moment in the culture; it will be a shock, an upset, some sort of “proof” that the Academy is changing. This is exciting but also a signifier of a need for more change.

I leave you with one final comparison between these two great works. Both films have a depiction of a lynching. In the first few minutes of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, we see two black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, wrapped in a final, tragic embrace. In 12 Years a Slave, Solomon is the victim of an attempted lynching, and spends an entire day hanging with a rope around his neck (he’s been let down just enough to keep him alive), gasping for air, toes digging in the mud while the world goes on around him. McQueen and Daniels both told a story with which we are all, by now (for the most part) familiar, but they each took a unique approach—unique from each other and unique from directors of the past. It has to be said that they are both powerfully good directors who created brilliant pieces. One story cannot even occupy the same space without the other. That is to say, 12 Years a Slave might have had less impact without The Butler, and obviously the true story of The Butler could not even exist without true stories of survival like 12 Years a Slave. For that reason it seems unfortunate—or just plain wrong—that there was only room for one at Sunday’s event.

So as we celebrate 12 Years a Slave winning Best Picture of the Year, we look forward to another year of powerful works. Last year was indeed a great year for black film, but the Oscars are—if nothing else—an excellent measure of where we are as a culture. And we still only have room for one. So the fight for more stories about the black experience continues. A great foundation has been laid, and another year of work lies ahead, in hopes that one day black films will not need more “room” at the table, but that at some point the table will be so much more colorful, so much more varied, that we won’t be able to tell whose table it is. And perhaps, one day, more films will come along and demolish the table altogether, blow it up with a bundle of dynamite (not unlike the one Tarantino once used to brilliantly remove himself from his own narrative).

Because, as wonderful as these two films were … some of us are still secretly (now, openly) longing for something reminiscent of Django Unchained, something brave enough to elevate the black protagonist to straight-up superhero status. Granted, this was not in the scope of either project—both McQueen and Daniels worked from true accounts and actual memoirs. And no—these stories can’t all be revenge fantasies about the black experience, that are also, simultaneously embraced by the Academy—but a film lover sure can dream.

Shannon M. Houston is a New York-based freelance writer, regular contributor to Paste, and occasional contributor to the human race via little squishy babies. You can follow her on Twitter.