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.
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!