Attention Spans and Histories of Racial Violence

This summer saw the rendering of judgment on the Trayvon Martin killing, the Supreme Court gutting of the key provisions of the Voting Rights Act and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. It also saw the release of two powerful films that deal with issues of race and history, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station. What’s particularly interesting is the way the films have been received. While both garnered high praise, there was also some disgruntlement with regard to the former, more mainstream, film. Some viewers and critics were put off by its sentimentalism, its very selective and often distorted use of history and character, and its ending, which seemed to enshrine the election of Barack Obama as the perfect endpoint of the struggle for civil rights. What follows is not a review of these films. Rather, I take these two films, and the times and events they comment on, and exactly how they choose to do so, to raise a set of questions. Can we really “feel” history, particularly the history of racial violence, anymore? If so, what are the conditions under which that could happen, especially if juxtaposing long histories to the capturing of a moment?

Maybe the source of the disagreements with The Butler’s ambitions is in the voice it chose to center on. Screenwriter Danny Strong got the idea for his script from an article by Wil Haygood, “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” which appeared in the Washington Post on November 7, 2008. It told the story of White House butler Eugene Allen, his many years of service to successive presidents. Strong developed it into the story of Cecil Gaines, expanded the scope, added much material and found backers. The rest is, well, history. The idea was to have a specifically black point of view orient our long journey through the history of civil rights, including a margin before and after. But there was something else – he had to be both an eloquent voice and a muted one. His freedom to speak was severely constrained and channeled by his position as a servant, but also as a black man.

In an early pivotal scene, Cecil Gaines is serving drinks to a group of rich white men sitting back in posh leather chairs in a swank Washington, DC, hotel. It’s the early ’60s, and they are declaiming on the “niggers” down South who are causing all this trouble. They, of course, don’t know Cecil’s son is a Freedom Rider. They even fail to really register the fact that Cecil is black except from their very narrow view of him as a subservient figure and one likely not to disagree with them. One of them asks him his take on all this fuss. Trained at a very early age not to have an opinion, or at least not to voice one, Cecil mumbles something that receives the white man’s blessing. The scene is pivotal not only because it shows just how well trained Cecil is (after all, his first lesson in keeping quiet is delivered to him from his father, as they work in the Georgia cotton fields and Cecil’s mother is being raped by a white slave owner, a lesson the father himself has not learned completely for he is shot dead in front of the son for simply rising up and saying, “Hey” to the white man, after the rape is done), but also because the White House chief of staff has been watching the scene unfold with interest, and immediately after, invites Cecil to interview for a position as butler in the White House. He is apparently impressed by the potential for Cecil to become a good “house nigger,” precisely because he will not react, at least not in such a situation.

Daniels’ film tells the story of a huge sweep of history through the eyes of a butler who has been trained not to have an opinion, and certainly not a vote. Or when he finally does have the temerity to say something, is left unheard. And this history of race relations is emphatically a history of violence.

The first flashback image is one of a lynching, and importantly of two black bodies. This drives the point that we are not to regard these as acts of individual violence, but of all-out systemic racism. We move from the ’50s and early ’60s to the turn to militancy, which is brought home, literally, as Cecil’s older son, sporting black leather and a beret, brings home his Afro-sporting girlfriend. They triply offend Cecil and his wife, Gloria, by first “critiquing” their parents’ admiration for Sidney Poitier (whom the young people consider a white man’s Negro); then belching; and finally, as they are being thrown out of the house, insulting the kind of work Cecil does (It is up to Martin Luther King Jr. to disabuse Louis of his prejudice against his father’s profession).

The depiction of a meeting of a small group of Black Panthers is sure to be criticized, for it focuses not on the party’s school and food programs (which are mentioned only in passing), but on its promotion of armed resistance. Ironically, Louis’ younger brother opts to, as he puts it, fight for his country as opposed to fighting against his country. At that point most of us pictured in our minds the scene of his flag-draped coffin being brought home, and sure enough, that is exactly what we get.

Such episodes, where a critical viewer will wince at the obvious sentimentality, are not small in number. The ultra-cleaned-up image of JFK (no mention of the Bay of Pigs); the lack of comment on LBJ, the war-monger, as opposed to the focus on LBJ, the signer of the Voting Rights Act; the strange omission of the assassination of RFK and the Chicago “police riots” at the 1968 Democratic National Convention; no mention of the assassination of Malcolm-X; the depiction of Ronald Reagan as a simple, befuddled old guy who vetoes antiapartheid legislation, but gives Cecil his long-overdue raise – the list goes on. For many, the super-celebratory depiction of the ascendancy of Obama to the presidency, which ends the film, is very hard to take given what we know of what followed.

And yet that’s not really the point of the film. We can easily launch a number of critical salvos against it, but that is only if we forget or downplay the fact that this film is really about Cecil as an historical subject, feeling each moment at the moment (as compared to us, who reside at some historical distance). Gaines’ life experience is profoundly shaped by his race at specific moments in history. The film traces the rise and ebb of different American modes of racism and how Cecil perceives them given his personal history. Sure, there is an objectionable “post-race” feeling at the end of the film, but remember this is the end of Cecil’s life as well – the final, feisty scene is worth remembering in this regard. Only by downplaying (unfairly, I think) his historical position and the deeply human, deeply real aspect of the film, can we really find that much fault with the film. By insisting too much on a full depiction of “our” history, from the vantage point of 2013, we degrade his. We are wrong to demand that his view be perfect and in sync with ours. The Butler is weighed down with a particular burden – it must sustain out attention and, more importantly, our acquiescence to both its historical account and Gaines’ perception of those events over a long and tortuous narrative arc. This contrasts sharply with Fruitvale Station, which flows out of a single event. Comparing the two films in this regard gives us some insight into the ways we “process” history today and specifically the history of racial violence in the United States.

Fruitvale Station received enormous attention, perhaps even more than The Butler. It debuted at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize, and it won the Best First Film award at Cannes. Coincidentally, one of its coproducers was Forest Whitaker, star of The Butler. Not unsurprisingly, people took notice because of the perceived similarities between the key event of Fruitvale Station – the killing of an unarmed Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day, 2009, at an Oakland BART station and the sentencing of his killer, BART security officer Johannes Mehserle, to two years in prison for involuntary manslaughter – and the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. Unlike the Martin killing, however, which had no witnesses, the Grant killing had multiple renderings on cellphone video cameras, and images and sounds of the event were instantly uploaded to YouTube and emailed to local and national news stations. Indeed, eerily, the opening sequence of the film is comprised of some of that footage, seemlessly blended together. While the film nevertheless received some of the same kinds of criticism as did The Butler (some said it was too sentimental, that it white-washed Grant, that it played with the facts), those voices were much more in the minority than was the case with The Butler.

I don’t think that the relative critical success and impact of Fruitvale Station can be attributed solely to the fact that its historical event was that much more current, urgent and visceral than The Butler’s. Maybe it has more to do with the notion that movies that seek to capture a large swath of history cannot sustain interest except by stringing together disparate bits of history with a compelling, and sentimentally driven, personal, unifying point of view. That the central character, through whose eyes we witness this history, is ambivalent, conflicted, disempowered at times, lends more truth to the story, but perhaps that sort of nuance is not welcomed by an audience that demands a simple storyline, one that aligns with our sense of what should make sense and how history should be understood, given our position of judgment much after the fact. Or perhaps we refuse to believe that racial violence has such a long and continuous history in this country. Conversely, maybe in today’s intensely instantaneous age, where events are vividly recorded and presented by amateurs, “citizen journalists” and the like, we are more trusting of the present moment to be momentous. But my suspicion is that, while each of these hypotheses might have some explanatory value, what made (and makes) Fruitvale Station a history we can believe in is that the killing of African American boys and men (among others) is alive to us in the present and for the foreseeable future in a way that is qualitatively different from the ways a long historical narrative delivers racial violence to us.

We see the repetition of the killing of young black and brown men so often, so frequently, that our credulity is not taxed, but rather our recognition of racial violence is repeatedly reconfirmed and impressed upon us as something absolutely real today, regardless of historical precedent. Whatever hope we have might be in no small way derived from the fact that the age of being relegated to the status of a mute witness to history is slowly being eclipsed by our growing capacity to record and broadcast events that become history. And our increasing sense that it is more and more urgent to do so.

And yet, in the end, even these super-vivid, immensely intense images and reports, demand that we consider the long historical record, even if it is murky, multiply-interpretable and debatable. Otherwise, these ultra-intense and vivid screen captures threaten to fade into the distance, irretrievably. Given this, both these films contribute critically to our understanding of the history, and contemporaneity, of racial violence in the United States.