A friend called from California to ask had I seen the news of Skip Gates’ screening of Lee Daniels’ new movie, The Butler (starting Forest Whitaker), which led at the box office over the weekend in ticket sales, grossing more than $25 million. Already, conclusions are being drawn about what it means, the lessons of the creative celebration on the screen and on the lives beyond.
I spend the weekend looking backward. Thinking about Stepin Fetchit and the Bundy boys, William and McGeorge. Stepin Fetchit, a stage name, was born Lincoln Theodore Andrew Perry of West Indian parents who migrated to Florida in the 1890s, his father a Jamaican cigar maker, his mother a Nassau seamstress. Perry received the first screen credit for a person of color and was Hollywood’s first black millionaire, earning its twin coins of recognition and money for his character portrayals of offensive stereotypes.
But Stepin Fetchit (“step’n’fetch it,” laughing remainder of ordering a lackey about; it misses the hidden admonition: go and get it) took us beyond belief—and beyond disbelief. So exaggerated and absurd was his character, so obvious a stretched, ridiculous caricature of the stereotype itself, it became both an indictment and parody of those who accepted his image in their looking glass even as it portrayed and revealed the inner fears and social uncertainty that were barriers to progress.
His work was a revolutionary cautionary tale. Deliberately calculated, it made fun of the fears of lynching and brutality by mocking the physical forces that regulated black life, then monitored and adjudicated by a privileged, random citizenry.
His exaggeration of lazy (he was known as the laziest man in the world!) merged the persona of the gentlemen of ease, those with great wealth, and the resistance of those exploited and robbed of their labor’s value, those who faced the fear of a world of harsh, brutal, random, incidental hostility.
His comedic rendering gave a new, unspoken meaning of the dangers Booker T. Washington ignored when he advised the Negro in his 1896 Atlanta Exposition speech, to “cast down your buckets where you are.” For far different reasons, but equally as legitimate, Step took Washington’s words to imply: “it ain’t safe to go nowhere!”
He was laughed at, and put down. But he never sold out. His speech and gait pointed to the price of his hurt. His agony was visible behind every laugh.
He made the mask transparent to those who knew its code.
The Bundy boys, on the other hand, were making world policy when the butler was in the White House. As the new film celebrates the working class, let’s not forget the distance from answering the door to entering the door. In the ways of power, there’s clearly a difference between insight and decision. The roles of President and butler are not interchangeable. The difference is in opportunity. The Bundys had it. The butler, for all his proximity to power, did not.
For many in America, power is in images; The Butler is larger on screen than in life. Yet the Bundys, William and McGeorge, never had a movie. And even today, the movie The Butler views the same divided vision that Step introduced: what some think is so real and so great masks the real progress which Step fetched as a clown, whose warning in the middle of the laughs, shock, and curses, rang true.