Lee Daniels' The Butler: Overcoming the Transgressions of Precious and Negotiating the Double Bind

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Although Lee Daniels adamantly resists being labeled a black filmmaker, he is viewed as one and, therefore, has been subjected to criticism stemming from the representations of race and African American experience in his films. Non-white filmmakers have often felt compelled to adhere to the double bind, to walk a tightrope between producing resisting images sated with political subtexts and social responsibility, while trying to avoid undermining their films’ aesthetics, production values, and accessibility. In her essay, “Artistic Integrity: Race and Accountability,” bell hooks posits that a number of black filmmakers have either internalised “white su-premacist aesthetics,” or that they – consciously or unconsciously – tend to reproduce those black, stereotypical characters and dehumanizing images audiences are assumed have come to expect or prefer.

Lee Daniels’ award-winning film Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire (2009) seems to fit the bill. While it attracted crossover audiences worldwide and received raving reviews from numerous white film critics, it – at the same time – harvested scathing criticism by important African American writers, such as Ishmael Reed and Armond White, the head film critic of the New York Press, who accuses the film of being a “sociological horror show.” Thus, the same film espouses two diametrically opposed readings, showing a deep racial divide. In my paper, I will delineate the Precious debate and examine how Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013) avoided the pitfalls of Precious. The Butler negotiates the double bind through more familiar subject matter as well as a greater awareness for historical contextualization and avoidance of problematic stereotyping. Yet by strictly adhering to the modes of Hollywood history-oriented filmmaking, Daniels makes an important, but im-perfect film.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTrangressions/Transformations : Literature and Beyond
EditorsBrigitte Johanna Glaser, Wolfgang Zach
Number of pages18
PublisherStauffenburg Verlag
Publication date2018
Pages83 - 100
ISBN (Print)978-3-95809-590-8
Publication statusPublished - 2018
EventTrangressions / Transformations: Literature and Beyond: Transgressions, Transformations: Literature and Beyond - Göttingen, Germany
Duration: 27.07.201531.07.2015