DRIVING MISTER PRESIDENT

by Gar Anthony Haywood

I have a dear friend who can’t stand Oprah Winfrey.  A mid-list novelist like me, he thinks she’s a literary snob whose book club was an elitist farce, a cultural enclave for readers and writers every bit as exclusionary to authors of color as Augusta National has traditionally been to black golfers not named “Tiger.”  And if, God help you, you happen to write genre fiction, as my friend and I both do?  Well, the record certainly shows that the Big O’ has never had any time for you, let alone love.

Personally, I think her shortsightedness is Ms. Winfrey’s privilege.   She is entitled to like what she likes and make literary giants of whomever she pleases, be they dead or alive.

I wish she had broader reading tastes, sure — the consistent “We Shall Overcome (Racism/Poverty/Abandonment/Death of a Child, Parent, Spouse, etc.)” flavor of her book club selections has always been somewhat annoying — but, unlike my friend, I’ve never really had the energy to care, one way or the other, what she chooses to condemn or endorse.

Until now.

Now comes news out of Hollywood that Ms. O’ is mulling a return to acting — after a hiatus of more than 14 years — to accept a part in THE BUTLER, director Lee Daniel’s upcoming bio-pic about Eugene Allen.  Allen was a black man who worked as — you guessed it, a butler — in the White House from 1952 to 1986, where he served a total of eight presidents, from Harry S. Truman to Ronald Reagan.

Does Allen’s sound like a compelling story?  Perhaps.  You live in the White House for over five decades, at the beck and call of eight of the most powerful men who ever lived, and you’re bound to walk away having had more than a few experiences worth telling your grandchildren about.

But the title of Daniel’s planned film of Allen’s life makes it perfectly clear why African Americans should embrace it with all the enthusiasm of a nine year old given a fruit cake for Christmas: Allen was a butler!  Regardless of whose shoes he shined or meals he served, he was a servant, nothing more and nothing less.

In other words, a perfectly appropriate alternative title for Daniels’ movie would be DRIVING MR. PRESIDENT.  And where have we all seen that film before?

At this point, I could surprise you not a whit by turning this commentary into yet another indictment of Hollywood’s pathetic tendency to represent black people in only the narrowest and most stereotypical terms, those terms being: “domestic help” (nannies, butlers, maids, chauffeurs); “buffoons” (cross-dressing cops, matriarchs of large, dysfunctional families played by cross-dressing writer/actor/directors); po’ folks (ghetto thugs, single mothers, pimps and drug dealers); and of course, ‘ballers (base-,  foot-, and the ever-popular basket-).

But railing against this vicious cycle of cinematic racial profiling has proven to be as effective in creating change as a squirt gun against a forest fire, so I’ll leave that noble endeavor for others to tackle, again and again, and again, until (it would seem) the end of time.  No, what I’m taking up arms against today is not the pinhole view Hollywood continues to have of the role black people can and should play in movies, but the apparent willingness of someone as iconic as Oprah Winfrey to enable it.

When an actor like, say, Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer of THE HELP receives an offer to play yet another character out of the Four Basic Negro Groups as outlined above (Help, Buffoon, Po’ Folk, ‘Baller), her choices are to take the role and keep eating, or wait for something more dignified to come along and starve.  Asking her to risk life, limb and career by taking a stand against the box Hollywood is so intent upon keeping our people in is like asking the one member of the SWAT team not wearing a Kevlar vest to take point.  It’s suicide.

But Oprah?  Oprah has options.  Oprah has position and power and wealth.  Enough of all three with plenty left over to tell pretty much anyone in this town “no” and get away with it.

Which is exactly what she should have said when the script for THE BUTLER first came across her desk: no.  Flatly, unconditionally, “No.”

“After waiting fourteen years to be offered a movie part worthy of my name and stature, I am not coming out of retirement for this recycled b.s.”

(And before you suggest I would need to read the script for THE BUTLER myself to have any right to say all this, let me point out that reading it would do nothing to change the inalterable fact that, once again, it is the story not of an astronaut or a Nobel prize winner or even a simple dentist, but of a butler.  An exceptional butler, a wise butler, a butler with a heart of gold, no doubt — but a butler, all the same.  (Please go back to the beginning of this post and start reading again if you still don’t understand why this is a problem.)

Of course, I’m asking quite a bit of Ms. O’ here because the premise of THE BUTLER sits right smack dab in the sweet spot of her literary preferences.  For Oprah, based upon her book club choices, anyway, tugged heartstrings and emotional tragedy trump originality and/or authenticity every time.

Still, it would have been great to see her get past her own affection for Hollywood’s favorite cast of black characters to let this opportunity to play one go to someone else, and make a big stink about it in the process.

By publicly declining a role in Mr. Daniels’ film, would Oprah accomplish anything beyond making it more difficult for its producers to get it made?  Probably not.  But her doing so would send a message to Hollywood regarding its myopic, unconscionable vision of African Americans that almost no one short of Ms. Winfrey could send and live to tell about it:

“To hell with this, I’m not having it.”

True, were they in Oprah’s shoes instead, it would only be fair to expect male superpowers like Denzel Washington and Will Smith to do the same.

But since I’ve just read they’re attached to do a remake of the old Bill Cosby/Sidney Poitier slapstick comedy “Uptown Saturday Night,” I wouldn’t put my money on that happening, either.

Meanwhile, on another subject entirely. . .

Maybe you’ve seen this graphic that’s been passed around a great deal on Facebook lately:

My writer friends say the right-hand image represents what the average career track looks like for professional authors who have achieved “success.”  I suggest it actually looks more like this, at least for many:

I point this out now because I am myself about to climb even further up and out from the Pit of Irrelevance — otherwise known as OOP (Out Of Print) Hell — starting next Tuesday, April 17, when Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press officially re-issues all six of my Aaron Gunner novels as e-books.  To say that I’m excited would be to understate matters considerably.

How this development will affect my own career trajectory — onward and upward, or more non-linear zig-zagging? — remains to be seen.  But I’m hoping the books will find a whole new audience with Kindle and Nook owners and create a demand for a seventh Gunner novel.

Especially since that seventh novel is being written as we speak.

Wish me luck!

14 thoughts on “DRIVING MISTER PRESIDENT

  1. JD Rhoades

    Gar, I'm with you to an extent. It didn't take me long to toss THE HELP as another example of "how I, the only enlightened white person, helped black folk get over" self-congratulation.

    But consider this: Up until about the last third or so of the Twentieth Century, a pretty substantial percentage of black folks WERE working in some capacity for white folks. A big part of the American drama involves how they dealt with that.

    If you say, "I want to make a movie about black people in American history, but no athletes and no servants", you limit yourself pretty severely.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Gar, I started reading the first paragraph and was getting ready to rip into you for dissing Oprah, who I'm pretty sure saved my life one year when she put that string of therapists and life coaches on her show for a year straight, effectively putting the entire country through daily therapy.. I think she's done more to use television to improve the quality of ordinary people's lives than anyone I can think of.

    But then I read on, and – you;re right. She could take a stand that would address what feels like a huge step backward for Hollywood with THE HELP.

    I have to say, though – she is an actor, and actors have incredible blinders when it comes to roles. It's about THEIR part. It's a mindset that makes them good at it, actually.

  3. Gar Haywood

    JD: Your point regarding the limited range of stories in our history is well taken. By necessity, most of those stories WOULD have to be about people working as one form or another of domestic help — which is precisely why I find Hollywood's determination to revisit that history, over and over again, rather than make movies about our present or, God forbid, our future, so incredibly frustrating. I think what it all boils down to it, maids and butlers and cooks, etc., who lived at a time when they had no real powers of self-determination, are the kinds of black people Hollywood believes white moviegoers are most comfortable with, so those are the kinds of movies that get made. It's very sad.

    Alex: I'm actually with you on Oprah. In most ways, I love her, too. I think she's earned everything she has honestly, through sheer talent and hard work. God bless her. But I also think she can be very myopic regarding the types of stories she feels are worth telling, and her narrow field of vision has left a lot of great writers on the outside of her party looking in. Granted, seeking out and endorsing every book that deserved the attention wouldn't have been humanly possible, but once her book club attained the level of influence on book buyers it did, I think she could have done a better job of broadening its scope so that authors in and out of genre had a fair shot at hitting the Oprah jackpot.

  4. vp chandler

    I can see your point about O having the power to choose her projects and set an example.
    I personally find the idea of a WH butler's story interesting, whether he's black or white. Maybe she just really likes the story? The news about "Uptown Saturday Night" just seems depressing! Really? They are A list actors.

    Congratulations on the re-issues! I look forward to reading them. ๐Ÿ™‚

    PS I've never been excited about her book choices and don't read them. After she made Beloved, I refused to follow what they read.

  5. Andi Shechter

    Gar, thank you. I so dislike Oprah W and am aware this slams me solidly in the curmudgeon camp because she apparently does so much good. She seems to be a major defender of feel-good. Now, you know me, and know I can use feel-good in my life but could we do it without the layers of goo? Yes,m many blacks were in the servant class for the last century, but, ihe last century we also had powerful brilliant black people that everyone should know.

    For the record, I watched her show once, yes, really only one time and found her to be the most impatient, know-it-all and flat out BAD interviewers ever. I cannot watch the Dr Phils of this worldnor sit while she lets us know how great she is. Weight loss and all that leave cold.

    The recent list on her website gave a boost to some great great writers like SJ Rozan and Cornelia Read (look! chicks do genre!) but in doing so showed that her thinking was very very old and tired. Apparently, Ms O has *just* learned that there are kick ass female mystery protagonists. No, really.

    Oprah, ma'am, you want to tell a story? Tell everyone about Fannie Lou Hamer. Do a biopic about the amazing Ella Baker. Or, hey, in this centennial year, we could really use a movie about the great Bayard Rustin.

  6. Allison Davis

    So when 24 put a black man as president in one of the TV's most popular shows, you think that had any softening effect on the subsequent election? Does Hollywood just reflect history, or can it create or effect it?

    There is no doubt that racism is alive and well in mainstream movies and life, and I do think that it is the responsibility of anyone who can call that out to do so (if they are so willing to put themselves on the line). So I agree that O (yes, who I also love) could use this opportunity…similarly the return to Mad Men (and the short lived Playboy and Pan Am shows) were also the same sort of thing with women. Where the butler likely was wise and offered that wisdom to his employers, women are depicted behind the scenes but not likely to run the scene and these three shows flash back to a time where female sterotypes were horrible…well, that is another topic for another day. But the backlash against women is also alive and well. Does that affect how we portray our characters and do we as writers have some responsibility to push through the stereotypes? I think so, but I wouldn't put that on others, that's just me.

    MUCH more exciting is that I am now going to download all the Gunner books onto my Kindle and encourage others to do so. Awesome.

  7. Lisa Alber

    As I was reading your post, I also thought about what Allison just mentioned: a generalized backlash -against blacks and women, and probably other minorities if I think about it hard enough. And it gets me wondering just what the hell is going on–we're regressing as a country. Does bad economic times breed narrow-minded behavior?

    What do you want to bet that Oprah will play the wise behind-behind-the-scenes wife married to the wise-behind-the-scenes servant? Huh.

    Congratulations on the new life for your books!

  8. Allison Davis

    Alex, of course not, I don't have a TV…but I have yes seen episodes. I'm not sure it's feminist as it glamourizes some of that discrimination but yes, I see your point. Still…I'm talking generally in conjunction with what's happening politically, and then the reinforcement of TV choices (two of which are now gone). Just seems like old ground. But maybe there's some current reflection in the past that is worth while.

  9. Andi Shechter

    I won't watch Made Men, nor Pan Am nor the now defunct one about Playboy. Even if they are about the women, they are about an awful time.I remember all too well the battles my mother had, as a working woman, a "single mother" and a divorced woman. I remember my sister having to buy all sorts of CRAP to wear to the office because they "allowed" pantsuits. I was tehre and remember and i can't watch. To me, it depicts an awful period, a repressed, ugly time where yeah, sure women ran things but….as someone who worked as a secretary/legal secretary for years,I sure do know who ran things in the law offices. But it doesn't matter to me, as i also remember the pay rates, the casual sexism, the hair spray and cigarettes and racist and "fag" jokes. And Medgar Evers and Emmett Till and James Meredith. So while I understand seeing it as subversive, as Alex does, i see it as a terrible history. Maybe it has to do with how old each of us is?

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I'm sure Pan Am and Playboy Club were awful, but that's network TV. Mad Men is on AMC.

    I don't know if it has to do with our ages so much, Andi – remember I'm a horror writer as well as mystery and what's being depicted on Mad Men IS horrific. I totally get why you wouldn't want to watch it. I'm just glad that someone's telling it exactly like I'm sure it was.

    (My aunt was a nurse and the nurses had to get weighed in every week so they'd be slim and attractive. Unbelievable.)

  11. David Corbett

    I'm with Alex on Mad Men. Watching Peggy try to be the hip liberal by inviting Dawn, the black secretary hired out of shame, to stay at her apartment because there were riots uptown, then have Peggy eye her purse before going to bed because, you know … It was a cringe-worthy moment in the best sense, giving us a character we all cheer for robustly in a moment that embarrasses us all. I think by capturing the cusp of change for women and blacks and gays — right before the dam broke — gets at a great truth, and I'm grateful for it. It has one foot in the fifties and one foot in the sixties and thus provides a great lens into what changes and what doesn't, and spares no one. I don't think it's always brilliant, but it's always worth watching.

    I'm not sure a year-long therapy session did us much good. But I've got no bones to pick with Oprah. She's earned her right to do as she damn well pleases. But yeah, I can't see myself trotting out in any big rush to see THE BUTLER.

    But I can see myself stocking up on Aaron Gunner novels. Congrats, Gar. I'll be joining you in the MP/OR stable in a month's time. And I'll be proud to do so, knowing you're in there with me.

  12. Susan Shea

    I'm so glad your books are going to be BIP – and will keep my fingers crossed it moves you back up the ladder where you deserve to be. About the roles for African American actors, I agree. With all due respect to Octavia Spencer, I thought the (imho) dreadful "The Help" should never have been made. The fantastic Viola Davis brought depth to her character, but Octavia's was a total stereotype and I squirmed for her most of the time. And your point is well taken – maybe Spencer had to make the decision to do it, but Oprah's one of the richest people – not just women – in the world. Surely, she can hold out for better. Heck, she could commission a story about the first African American female astronaut or one of the brave young women who defied Jim Crow laws in the south in the 1950s and 60s. There are plenty of heroes and fascinating people in history whose stories haven't yet been told. The butler thing may be part of a Downton Abbey trend?

  13. KDJames

    I had no desire to watch The Help and doubt I'll see this one either, for the reasons mentioned. From what I've learned over here, if a big name isn't attached, often a movie doesn't get made. Those with big names have a responsibility, like it or not, to exercise a bit more discernment.

    I guess the responsible thing to do as writers (unless we're telling a story set in a time when those narrow roles were more accurate) is not to perpetuate the stereotypes in our own writing. My current WIP is set mostly in Atlanta and actually has a "butler" — I refer to him tongue-in-cheek as a "man of all work" but it means something different from the traditional definition — and he's not black. He's a Brit and former special forces. Of the three black characters who play a major role, one is a district court judge and one is a tough as nails homicide cop and one owns an inner-city pre-school. Maybe one day someone will turn it into a movie and Gar won't hate it. Not holding my breath on either count. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Gar, HUGE congrats about the re-issues, which I am making a note to purchase/read once they come out next week. That is awesome news! Here's hoping you're on your way out of the squiggles, for good.

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