Why Do the British Film Critics Hate The Butler?

I went to see The Butler a few weeks ago, a decision made out of my expectation of a good historical film about the presence of a black butler serving in the White House. I hadn’t seen a trailer, read a review, and in fact I didn’t even know exactly who was in it. But I usually get an instinct about a film I know I will enjoy. I did enjoy the film even if “joy” is not the best word to describe my cinematic experience. There were moments where I did laugh, but I also cringed, winced and felt extremely saddened in a dramatised version of real events that occurred in the history of America, involving the fight for African American civil rights. It brought home to me, just what many African Americans have been through; the shocking maltreatment, the police brutality, and the sheer injustice of living in an unequal society. A society that that still lives in the memory of those alive at the time to witness it. By the end of the film I was in tears, and by the sound of sniffles elsewhere in the theatre, I doubt I was the only one. I thought all the characters were played well, and even Oprah, who I was expecting to be a flop, did a fantastic job of playing the wife of Cecil Gaines.

I went home feeling very moved and inspired, and even feeling a sense that more needs to be done in America for a more equal society, given the stories we still so often hear about racial tensions, and discrimination. I wanted to learn more about the true story upon which the film was inspired by, and went online to see what I could find. I came across a review of the Butler on the Guardian online. The reviewer was eager to point out every departure from the true story that the film had made. For instance, there was no record that Eugene Allen (Cecil Gaines real life name) had been a slave, and witnessed his father killed, and his mother go crazy after being raped by her slave master. Allen only had one son, as opposed to two, as the film depicts, and his son was not involved with the Freedom Writers or Black Panthers. The reviewer also used the word “farcical” to describe the film, and pretty much rubbished it.

 

After reading the review, I toyed with the idea of writing a blog post about it. As the reviewer was a white British person, I wanted to point out, that maybe they did not enjoy the film because he just could not relate to it, as it is a race-themed film. Maybe he just wasn’t all that concerned or moved by how black people have been treated in America. Maybe he thinks that we should just stop talking about all that racism and slavery stuff already. Maybe there was no single character he could relate to because he has not experienced anything similar to the struggles that the black characters faced, or just because, the colour of their skin automatically made him feel detached from the film, and made him to immediately view it as a “black film”.

Well I got rather busy with other things and then forgot about writing the post. Then I read this piece:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/olivia-cole/the-best-man-holiday-race_b_4295853.html

by a blogger who took issue with the New York times lazily labelling The Best Man Holiday as a race themed film, and thought that maybe I would write my piece after all, as race and film seem to be a topic of discussion at the moment. I wanted to try and find the review I had read in order to get the name of the reviewer, and carefully pick apart the review, but I could no longer find it. Instead I found another two negative reviews in the Guardian, one by Mark Kemode (a white male), and the other by Peter Bradshaw (who also happens to be a white male). These men both dissect the film in a very cold and deconstructive manner, without paying much attention to the substance. Bradshaw relegated the film with a comparison to Downtown Abbey. Kermode is slightly more generous by giving the film 3 stars instead of 2 as Bradshaw did, but still manages to denounce the film as a “fanciful retelling of contemporary history”. Both men totally miss the point.

The fact that these British film critics have a difference of opinion about the Butler to me (and all my friends who have watched the film), could be dismissed as just that; a difference of opinion. But I remember reading an interesting article about research that had been carried into film critic’s responses to films that have a black leading character being reviewed more harshly than films with a white leading character. If this is correct there is a potential knock on effect of less people going to see the film because of reading the negative review, and the film receiving fewer takings. Even in a small way then, the difference of opinion can be significant.

I’m not saying that the British are wrong about the differences between the film and real life. Clearly they are right. But the film is only “inspired” by a true story, and not based on it. And it is actually quite clever, the way the film weaves into the plot what was going on at the time with the Freedom Riders, and Black Panthers. Even though various things that happened in the film did not happen in Allen’s own life, they did actually happen. Slaves were raped and killed. Freedom Riders were repeatedly thrown in jail, and the segregated society was an appalling affront to the rights of black citizens. Allen did live through segregation to seeing the first “black” president of the United States. That’s the substance of the film that I refer to.

civil rights dog attackcivil rights hosed down freedom rides burnt bus

Maybe critiquing a film is supposed to be a very academic exercise devoid of any heart. If that is the case then fair enough, but perhaps these British Film critics should consider that for many movie theatre goers, The Butler is a touching and sensitive encounter with the past.

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Black Hair (Part 2): It’s None of Your Business!

I do not mean to cause offence by the title of this post; it is aimed at narrow minded people who judge black women not on the content of their character, but on something as superficial as how they choose to style their hair.

 

With this post I fall in danger of contradicting part 1, in which I sought to argue that it does matter how black women style their hair, in the sense that those who choose to wear it naturally, (knowingly or unknowingly) send a message to the world that there is nothing wrong the kinky textured hair of people of African descent. However I do think that it is also true that how a woman chooses to style her hair is her own personal choice, and as such should not be open for criticism and debate by others.

 

Let me explain what I mean. One day I was sitting on a train when I observed a very disturbing and bizarre scene. A black male starting speaking loudly to a young black female sitting across the aisle.

 

“Excuse me, is that your real hair?”

“No” she replied quietly, head down.

“I didn’t think so. You shouldn’t be wearing weave. It looks fake”.

 

I felt embarrassed for the young woman. Her hair was obviously a weave, and by the looks of it not “human hair”. Maybe she was not in a position to afford a better quality weave. Maybe she just wanted to cover her natural/relaxed hair with a weave as a protective style. Whatever her reasons for having a, not so great, weave, what right did that man have to question her? Whatever the state of her hair, in what way did it affect him?

 

Sadly he’s not alone in his condemnation of black women who do not wear their hair natural. If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to stumble across certain Youtube channels of (black) men, dedicated to spewing venom at black women, you will know exactly what I’m talking about. In fairness, it’s not just black men, and it’s not just men. Women too can be very judgmental about what they perceive to be a bad weave or bad hair day. Remember how much stick Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglass during the

How could simple tied back hair cause such a fuss?

How could simple tied back hair cause such a fuss?

2012 Olympics? She was not criticised for her performance – and rightly so as she won two gold medals – but what was her crime? Not having freshly relaxed hair!

 

I accept that criticism of women’s looks is not limited to one race. The picking apart of women’s bodies in national magazines is indiscriminate. But when it comes to hair, there does not seem to be such a fierce debate around what it means if Caucasian hair is straightened or left curly, or if extensions are added in. If you listen to those venomous self-hating Youtube cowards (cowards because it’s easy to be foul mouthed and derogatory behind your computer screen), then a black women who straightens her hair, or gets a weave, does so because she wishes she were white. Of course it can’t be because she feels like a change, or likes the way it looks, or wants a protective style. Even if she does wish to be white, surely it’s only a small minority of people who would actually conclude that a woman wishes she were a different race because of her hairstyle? Or should I suppose that when Cheryl Cole wears cornrows she is expressing her inner desire to be black?

Not sure if this was before or after her alleged racial assault on a toilet attendant

Not sure if this was before or after her alleged racial assault on a toilet attendant

For the record, black hair is versatile. It’s probably the most versatile hair type that exists. Many different styles can be achieved with it. So when black women choose to explore the different styles, why not just leave them be? It’s not hurting you. And in my experience, most people of other races do not quite understand black hair, and so do not even realise that. For example, box braids involve fake hair! How many times have I taken out braids and then been asked by classmates/colleagues “have you cut your hair?” Before I would roll my eyes, and think “how ignorant”, but now I find it liberating. Knowing that my colleagues are not scrutinizing my latest hairstyle and scanning the back of my head for visible tracks, puts me at ease. If only all black women could feel that way all of the time.

Marriage isn’t for Men

That’s right Seth, I thought whilst reading his now famous blog post about his (eventual) self sacrificial marriage. That’s right, Seth, it’s not all about you. Why do so many men make that same mistake?

What for me, is perhaps the most fascinating thing about “Marriage isn’t for you”, is that the rate people are sharing it, you would think it was wholly groundbreaking. I mean, is this really news? That marriage should be about putting your spouse first, ensuring their needs are met, being loving and kind, and unselfish? Sadly in our increasingly shallow and self-centred world, where men and women are celebrated for “selfies” and other self indulgent practices, this IS shocking news to most. You mean, being married isn’t all about me? I can imagine some people have been walking around in a confused daze since reading Seth’s post, similar to when they first discovered that Santa, or the Tooth Fairy are not real.

Suffice to say, that no wonder divorce rates are ever on the up. When a man (for the purposes of this post, I am focusing on the men) realises that he’s not getting everything he wants from a relationship, he walks, in the hope that some other woman will better pander to his ego, stomach, sexual needs etc. I want to focus on men, because it’s interesting isn’t, that a man wrote the enlightened piece. He’d clearly had an epiphany. But in my experience, (most) women have had this, doing what pleases the other, attitude for centuries. Maybe I am more exposed to it because of my cultural background. You see it often in West African cultures, and in Asian and middle-eastern cultures too. Even historically speaking, in English culture; women who put aside their own wants and needs to satisfy the wants and needs of their husbands.

Men are the ones, in my opinion, who really need the wake up call. It is hardly a contentious point, that women are objectified by men. More so than ever these days, with it not being possible to go a day without casting your eye over a half naked woman, either on a billboard, TV commercial, or over the shoulder of someone reading The Sun. Men are often referred to as having “trophy wives”, denoting a wife that serves no other purpose than to serve the man’s need to exude power and status. Or sometimes the man just wants a woman to bear him healthy and good looking heirs. (Recent case in point: did you hear about the Chinese man that sued his wife for being ugly? http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2223718/Chinese-man-sues-wife-ugly-court-AGREES–awarding-120-000.html).

marriage nagging wife

Oh how much more marriages would survive, if men stopped seeing their wives as mere babysitters, cooks, cleaners, punching bags, sexual slaves, doormats, property. It’s amazing how far treating a woman with dignity and respect will get you. It’s disheartening that such simple principles are so seldom seen these days. Is “feminism” (I use the word loosely) to blame? Feminists want women to be treated equally, or in other words the same as men. Well guess what ladies, we are not the same as men. We are designed differently, we are physically not as strong, we have a different hormonal make up, different ways of thinking and so on. Of course women should not be discriminated against, and should have the same rights afforded to men, but the insistence that women should be treated the same as men in every respect, has had the knock on effect that chivalry is now dead. Ladies, if a guy holds a door open for you, do you honestly believe that it’s because he thinks you do not have the strength or intelligence to open the door yourself?

Back to you men as I round up this semi-rant. I know that women can be selfish too, don’t get me wrong (click here for proof http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAXSgssptc0), but, if I’m still allowed to say such things in society that is seeking to throw away the concept of gender, man up, and be a man. Take responsibility for the relationship you’re in. Ask yourself the difficult questions, how do you see your wife? Have you become, or have you always been selfish? Why not take a leaf out of Seth’s book, turn the page and begin a new chapter.

Review: The Spider King’s Daughter

I’m always excited to read the work of new authors, such a Chinundu Onuzo, a fellow Nigerian, and from the sound of her name, of Igbo heritage too.

 

I found her first novel “The Spider King’s Daughter” intriguing, at times witty, and quite punchy. It is what I would describe as an almost love story between a spoilt rich daughter of a corrupt Nigerian businessman, and a street Hawker, converted from a life of relative wealth and comfort, to a life of hustle on the streets of Lagos, as a result of his father’s untimely death.

 

The novel is easy to digest as the story is not a lengthy one. This could be because of a technique the writer uses where she narrates an account through the eyes of the rich girl, Abike, and then narrates the same event through the eyes of the Hawker. By doing so the reader is invited into the world of both protagonists, and as such gains a deeper understanding of what makes them tick.

 

What could be said to be a classic tale of two star crossed lovers from the opposite ends of the social spectrum, is also a critique of the huge gap between the rich and the poor in Nigerian society. The rich in this novel are portrayed as obnoxiously rich. It almost seems to be a trend that wealthy characters featured in novels set in Nigeria, have obtained their wealth through corrupt and criminal conduct. Having been born and brought up in the UK, I cannot comment on whether this representation is true to life, though my instinct tells me that it is not far removed.

 

lagos busy street

 

The picture that we are to see is that in Nigerian society, there is a sickening disregard for the poor. The Hawker is not even given a name, as though indicating that the name of one who has no wealth is of no significance. The way Abike’s father treats those he sees as beneath him (including his own children), is particularly disturbing. At the end of the novel, when the reader comes to the realisation that there is not going to be some grand reversal of fortunes, the alarming sense of inequality and injustice becomes almost depressing.

hawkers-nigeria

 

 

A source of some light-hearted relief is the character of Mr T, the half-baked homeless man with one arm, who has an unlikely friendship with the Hawker. He provides most of the comical content of the book, with his wild stories and eccentricity. Alongside the comedy, the overly dramatic narrative has the ability to make you feel that the stories and characters are far removed from reality, even if the truth is that they are not.

 

For another interesting take on this novel check out: http://weeklytrust.com.ng/index.php/my-thoughts-exactly/14022-playing-the-nollywood-game-in-chibundu-onuzo-s-novel-the-spider-king-s-daughter