One of the most elegant examples of director Lee Daniels’ powerful artistic sense comes in an early scene of his Oscar-bound film, The Butler.
As the movie opens, protagonist Cecil Gaines, the gray-haired White House butler, reminisces about his childhood.
Gaines’ thoughts drift to a deep south cotton field in the year 1926. Like other black “field hands,” young Cecil is picking cotton alongside his family.
The camera sets up the scene, pans the field, and eventually works its way in close to the eight-year Gaines. His father teaches him how to know when a boll is ready for picking. One can feel the heat, the humidity and the palpable oppression of the plantation owned by Thomas Westfall and his grandmother Annabeth.
Clearly, things in this cotton field have changed little since slave days.
But as this scene develops, it is what one does not hear that is so beautiful, so subtle.
One doesn’t hear the default music that 99 out of 100 directors would have plugged into the sound track here. There is no sorrowful blues guitar. No moaning spiritual. No chorus of an unrepentant South.
Neither River Jordan nor Dixie echo in this “Land of Cotton.”
Rather, can you dig Robert Schuman’s Piano Concerto in A Minor?
Schuman’s only piano concerto is one of the most beautiful examples of the serious music of the Romantic era. Dark, brooding, an always lovely interplay between piano and orchestra, it grips soul and heart.
What is it doing here?
Clearly, serious thought is given to such a choice. It is simply impossible that the finger of mere chance landed on this composer and this piece of music for this horrible moment.
One more or less obvious reason for the use of any such “cultured” music here is that the very contrast between the elegant music and the sordid cotton field paints in harsh strokes the gulf between the gentility embodied in the White House and the sweat and dirt of the cotton field. The famous Godfather christening scene raised (or, more properly, lowered) to cliché such contrast between action and music.
In 1926, Calvin Coolidge sat in the White House. Some 35,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. In much of America the life of a black man (or a “Mexican” or an “Indian”) was worth just what the temper of a randomly encountered white man would bear.
But there is, I suggest, a deeper point, a more profound moral and historical scoring.
Consider first the evil plantation owner’s very family name: Westfall.
Then consider that Schuman and his piano concerto embodied what many consider to be the best of Western high culture: nobility of thought, an enlightened and idealistic view of humanity, and a reverence for beauty for beauty’s sake. These are indeed vauable artifacts of Western culture. They might even be the ones that white supremacists have in mind when they congratulate themselves for belonging to the factually non-existent category of the “white race.”
Yet all of these ideals have been precisely savaged—at best ignored—throughout the brutal centuries within which people of any color have had the fell misfortune of being visited by Western culture.
Schuman wrote his beautiful piece in 1845. Let us examine a few signal events of the same year for some instructive contrasts
In May, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, was published by the Boston Anti-Slavery Society.
The powdered and perfumed elite who would later thrill to Clara Schuman’s performances of her mentally ill (and eventually institutionalized) husband were for the most part perfectly okay with—or at best indifferent to—the enslavement of other human beings, the treatment of others supposedly made in the image of God, as no better than and often worse than the lowest and dumbest of animals.
The horror of it is stunning.
There is more.
In the July-August issue of United States Magazine and Democratic Review editor John L. O’Sullivan opined that foreign powers were trying to prevent American annexation of Texas in order to impede “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” (O’Sullivan need not have worried so much. In December, Texas entered the Union…as a “slave state.”)
O’Sullivan’s was the first known use of the powerful phrase “manifest destiny.”
This odious concept taught that Western (the historically non-existent “Anglo-Saxon”) culture had been selected and, indeed, divinely charged with the duty to expand itself to the West (and anywhere else that it could ooze).
Manifest Destiny was the “white man’s” imperialist burden to violently conquer the hapless “little brown people” of the world. The generous conquerors would bestow upon these inferiors some few of the wonders of high Western culture (a patronage that usually amounted to little more than forced religious conversion, a mandatory change in dress, and a peonage equivalent in all but name to slavery).
Where in hell, my child, do you think America’s imperial holdings in Puerto Rico, Texas and the Great American Southwest, Panama, Hawaii, the Philippine Islands, and other hapless nooks and crannies came from?
It is the outstanding warrant for this savage and violent betrayal of its own values that the West in general and the United States in particular have yet to fully account. Many seek to evade this ineluctable accounting in the smug cant of the Tea Party and the lies of the thinly disguised racist plutocracy that now controls the right wing in America.
It is this fall from the grace of noble ideas to the putrescence of racism and slavery that is embodied in the name of Thomas Westfall. Just another plantation owner, enjoying centuries of violent subsidization.
The shame. The horror.