It seems the demands for a different and versatile representation of the Black experience in film has finally been answered. Lee Daniel’s “The Butler” hit theaters last Friday and included big name and emerging favorites such as Forest Whitaker, Oprah, Terence Howard, David Oyelowo, and Yaya Alafia.
Spanning over a time period between the 1920s-2000s, the film follows Cecil Gaines’ (a character inspired by the life of Eugene Allen) journey from the cotton fields to the metropolitan area of Washington, D.C, where he lands a position as a butler for the White House. Gaines’ position sparks tension between family and friends, which causes him to question his sense of purpose. Set during the tumultuous times of the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, how Gaines reacts to these tensions and the mounting social and political struggles are the focal point of the film.
In spite of my initial skepticism, I enjoyed film especially the father/son dynamic, which definitely carried the film. It is a universal plot that most could relate to: A father does not approve of the way a son is living, hence an estranged relationship. I can also appreciate Cecil’s character in that it is an alternative to the modern controlling images placed on Black men. He is a Black man who loves his wife and family and takes on a job as the ultimate “house negro” in order to provide for them. It is commendable and is a testament to the strength of his character and depth of his love.
Although Daniels escaped stereotypical portrayals of Black men and Black family life, common misinterpretations of The Black Panther Party filtered into the film reinforcing a good/bad dichotomy between Southern and Northern civil rights organizations. It is an unfortunate thing when the social organizations of the 1960s and 1970s are only given validation depending on where physical trauma against Black bodies took place.
While attending Fisk University, Cecil Gaines’ son Louis Gaines and his girlfriend Carol Hammie were painted as honorable freedom riders and followers of MLK. They were educated, informed, and subjected themselves to verbal and physical assaults demanding equal and fair treatment. During this part of the film, footage is shown from various sit ins and attacks that ensued such as the use of water hoses, police dogs, and the atrocities of the KKK. This footage gave validity to the organizations in the South and in some ways elevated their status.
Things change after the assassination of MLK. Louis and Carol become members of The Black Panther Party. And may I just point out that the supporting footage has disappeared and what is left is a dinner scene that leaves nothing but a bad taste in my mouth. I had no idea that the Black Panther Party was just a group of “by any means necessary,” disrespectful, rude, breakfast-giving, natural hair, black leather/beret wearing disorganized black folks.
It’s almost laughable.
Not only is this representation inaccurate but it is a bit of jump to see the change in both Louis and Carol’s personalities not necessarily their politics. Was this the intended depiction of The Party? Who’s to say? But as a result, once again we see the classic binary between the organizations of the South and the North/West. Just as Malcolm was deemed the antithesis to the benevolent MLK, The Black Panther Party is pathological compared to the legitimate struggle of Southern organizations and in the film marked as a disgrace to the protagonist’s family and the community.
It is unfortunate that this is the impression that remains and continues proliferate. Therefore, it is important to highlight a few aspects of The Black Panther Party that easily could have been placed in the film that would have prevented an over simplistic and myopic representation.
Founded in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, The Black Panther Party (originally named The Black Panther Party for Self Defense) was created for the same reason as previous organizations such as CORE or SNCC; to end oppression and unequal/substandard treatment of Blacks living in America. As Bobby Seale puts it, the organization was the response to the “400 year old crying demands of us Black Americans.”
Initially taking the stance as a Black nationalist grassroots organization, The Black Panther Party implemented numerous community programs and services that go beyond the breakfast program vaguely mentioned in the film. Some of the goals of the Party include:
Freedom, full employment for blacks, and end to capitalist exploitation of the black community, decent housing, education, [most importantly] an African American based education [which led to implementation of numerous African American Studies programs and Ethnic studies programs throughout the nation], exemption from military service, and end to police brutality, freedom for black prisoners, fair representation in trials (James A. Tyner “Defend the Ghetto” p.108)
Programs geared toward the youth and elderly were also on their agenda. Seniors Against a Fear Environment was created when members of The Party learned that many victims of robbery were over the age of fifty. As a result, the members of The Party lobbied for repairs in low-income areas where seniors resided and provided a transportation service that escorted elderly persons to their homes.
Community was extremely important especially with the higher incidences of police brutality and executions. As a result, The Black Panther Party implemented a system of police patrolling which required members to carry firearms and in fact monitor police action and behavior.
Later in their trajectory the Black Panther Party began to form coalitions with non-black organizations which showed a dramatic shift in their platform. Some of those coalitions included:
…the Peace and Freedom Party and the White Panther Party (a college- student-based radical organization with headquarters in Ann Arbor, Michigan); it worked with the Brown Berets (a Chicano leftist organization in southern California), the Young Lords (a Puerto Rican group in Chicago and New York), and the Red Guard Party (a Chinese- American revolutionary group located in the Oakland Bay area). The Party also established connections with both the women’s liberation and gay liberation movements” (James A. Tyner “Defend the Ghetto” p. 109)
Like Malcolm, who was a great influence on the philosophy of The Black Panther Party, the organization saw another change, which would lead them to assume a global stance that focused not only on the liberation of oppressed people in America but all oppressed people in the world.
All of this is to say that like the work and goals of Congress for Racial Equality, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Freedom Riders and many others, The Black Panther Party was an organization striving to end racial oppression and empower and uplift a group of people who have been historically stripped of their basic rights. To portray them as anything but is a failure to acknowledge the significance of The Party’s work in the 1970’s and their relevance today.