Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Butler as National Myth

Alicia and I watched The Butler last week. I was struck by how safe the film is. Though made by Lee Daniels, this is a movie that reinforces the dominant post-civil rights era tropes rather than challenging them. Maybe it's because I just read Black is a Country, but I felt as though even the most conservative whites could watch this and, aside from an eye roll here or there, come away with their faith in the nation strengthened, and their complacency about injustice reinforced.

This movie is not really about celebrating the struggle for black equality. This is a movie that serves the useful function of incorporating limited and contested black gains into the narrative of the exceptional nation. In this story, black progress is important insofar as it represents the ultimate evidence of the nation's exceptionalism and ongoing promise.

The film's portrayal of the bombing of the freedom riders' bus is instructive. The scene is more than just violent and frightening, as I'm sure it was in real life. In the movie it becomes grotesque, demonic, Gothic. We see white hoods; we hear strange sounds that are almost animal-like. The images are distorted. If this is the face of white resistance, then haven't we indeed won a comprehensive victory? If this is the essence of what blacks faced, then hasn't the exceptional nation swept away the injustice that plagued it?

In our popular culture we still have no language or narrative structure to talk about the civil rights movement as a real thing that won some victories and suffered some defeats, leaving the boundaries of change far short of the racial egalitarianism it sought. Instead, we talk about it as national myth. We still don't have the means of speaking about white resistance in normalizing ways. This is how we end up with scenes like the one I mentioned above. To speak about white resistance in all its mundane power implicates too many things we hold dear. We don't want to admit that the civil rights movement was defeated because of people like us, prioritizing precisely the kinds of things we prioritize. No, we want to talk about people in hoods.

We cannot build a just social order on the foundation of magical history. But we want the magic more than the justice.

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