Before Lee Daniels’ The Butler opened to become the top-grossing film in America for three straight weeks last summer, there was a brief moment when no one wanted to see it. Well, “no one” is an exaggeration. But in Black barbershops and on Facebook timelines across the country, debates raged about whether we should support seeing our people in that kind of role yet again. Hollywood will stop casting us as butlers, maids and slaves (e.g., The Help, Django Unchained) only when audiences stop supporting those movies, said the naysayers. But the less we support films with Black casts, the less Hollywood will tell our stories at all, said the supporters. Yes, it’s complicated.
Early this year, actress Viola Davis told CNN she’d never again portray another housekeeper like her Oscar-nominated role in 2011’s The Help. (“I’m tired of that,” she said.) Two years later, two of the most captivating films released in 2013 featured British-Nigerian actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as the enslaved Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave and Forest Whitaker as the title character in The Butler. “Yes, we need other diverse images,” Whitaker admits on the set of our cover shoot at a cavernous New York City industrial space. “[But] to deny this experience is to deny a part of ourselves, to deny our own past and our ancestry. We have to understand it to move forward.”
An active humanitarian, Whitaker belongs to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, he’s a UNESCO goodwill ambassador and he founded the PeaceEarth organization for conflict resolution. His acting choices often include political elements because of his own social-activist worldview. Tackling race and politics in powerful ways, Whitaker infamously dealt with a stop-and-frisk incident in his everyday life at a Manhattan deli back in February, in a manner that epitomized conflict resolution.
“It was unfortunate,” he says diplomatically, shaking his head. At the Milano Market, an employee falsely accused Whitaker of shoplifting, patting down the actor for proof. “It angers you. I did have to speak about it publicly. I’m starting to develop a program around the education of police officers, talking to a few cities about starting compassion programs, sympathy programs. The man who afterward realized that he had made this mistake spoke to me about his family and about his children. I tried to be [empathetic] toward some parts of it, but some parts were just wrong.”
Read the rest in the December/January-dated issue of EBONY magazine!
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.