Four Frames of Colorblindness in the Movie The Butler
Being born different, people have an incredible opportunity to widen the horizons of their conscious through daily exchange with unique views of life. Even though they accept the inner diversity, they still cannot treat the physiological differences of each other decently. The racial segregation grounded merely on the skin color is the bright evidence of this. One can argue that many prejudices remained in the past and that society made a significant step toward racial equality. The cohort of the sociologists claims that this progress is merely reshaping the concepts to create a desirable visual effect. Thus, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva reveals the new ways society use to justify racial inequality in modern racial ideology by the means of four frames of colorblindness. The societal evidence of them can be found in Lee Daniels’ movie The Butler (2013) which reflects typical colorblind patterns described by Bonilla-Silva. The movie not only presents the context of colorblindness and its societal frames but also gives the idea of how overcoming these frames can help society to enhance multicultural democracy.
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The Butler focuses on the heroic period of African American history, presenting the civil rights movement of African American people in the USA. The story starts from depicting the racially oppressive era of Eisenhower’s presidency, proceeds through the period of active movements in the early 1960s, through the revolutionary struggles of the early 1970s leading to the moment of electing Barack Obama in 2008. The movie highlights two core contextual aspects: presidential affairs in the White House and private life of Gaines’ family. It is worth admitting that it is a thought-provoking movie that covers a huge historical lifespan. It concentrates on more than thirty years and more than eight presidential terms. The choice of the explored period, as well as the chosen aspects, is not accidental. It is the strong director’s intention to reveal the evolution of race issue through socio-political and individual perceptions. The chosen strategy allows Lee Daniels to convey the message that shaping social norms is not a simple task and that regardless of the steps taken toward equality, society remains framed with a stereotyped way of thinking. This director’s message corresponds to the theory of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s four frames of colorblindness.
Despite declaring the colorblindness as the latest social tendency, Bonilla-Silva considers that, indeed, the racial issue is as urgent as it was before. The manner of interpreting the information has only changed, and Bonilla-Silva determines the new social realities as “changing the meaning in service of power” (Bonilla-Silva 54). This set path justifies the existence of racial inequality which the sociologist outlines as four frames of colorblindness. Thus, Bonilla-Silva formulates the following frames through which society “rationalizes” minorities: abstract liberalism, naturalization, cultural racism, and minimization of racism (Jayakumar and Adamian 4). The essence of the frames could be better represented in the context of the movie’s analysis.
This frame is considered to be the basis of modern racial theory. The meaning of abstract liberalism is based on the ideas of “political and economic liberalism associated with equal opportunities and the individual choice” (Mueller 221). It is the ground for being simultaneously reasonable and hostile to equality. The movie The Butler brightly demonstrates how opposing vies can coexist. Each president to whom Cecil Gaines occurred to serve faces the racial issue, particularly its socio-economic context. It is worth admitting that the movie’s greatest value is in placing the presidential characters in the axis of a difficult though unstoppable process in the social realm (Sánchez-Escalonilla and Mateos). The officials have been trying to address the questions of common classes for white and black children, the right to share a common space in the public places by both American and African American, and the equal right to vote. All the attempts to fix the equal rights have been igniting various reactions in society. The director intentionally places the shot of Kennedy’s speech about shared public space next to the moment when Cecil is grieving over the president’s death. Through the causal links between the scenes, the director implies that social racial stereotypes are so solid that they could not wane even when being legalized. It shows that a person who initiates the changes will be removed as it had happened with Kennedy. Despite the fact that modern society is less prone to the radical measures, the equality is still perceived as unfairness. With regard to abstract liberalism in the modern age, one can consider the quote of Cecil Gaines, which was repeated for a few times during the movie: “Since black staff does just as much work as white staff, I believe our salaries should reflect our service” (1:15:00 – 1:17:00). His boss knew that Cecil was the best butler who performed excellent service. However, his internal prejudices did not allow him to increase Cecil’s salary on par with the white servants even though the legislation required it. It is the example of the abstract economic equality, which could be also observed today in spite of declaring the racial equality in all the areas. One more aspect of abstract liberalism represented in the movie is the individual choice. Cecil received the answer that he could either stay or leave the work. Individual choice is related to abstract liberalism aspects. People can choose for themselves in the abstract essence of a taken context, but they have no other choice in social realms. Thus, when the conversation about pay rise occurs in the movie, Cecil has nothing to do except saving his present workplace.
The meaning of frame of naturalization is evident from the origin of the term, which is related to nature. Indeed, it implies explaining the phenomenon of race as a natural occurrence (Bonilla-Silva 56). Being armed with the strong idea of happening, all objects are naturally what they are; white society makes people of color believe in this as well. This frame justifies inequality and racial tensions because they are perceived as natural. As the result, the minorities are trapped in a system. Cecil’s phrase “all got confused. I didn’t know that old man could feel so lost” (1:50:00 -1:55:00) represents a reaction to the changes in his ordinary life. It is a vivid confirmation of the frame of naturalization. Gravitating to the likeness turned to be artificial when Cecil with his wife was invited to participate in the presidential dinner: the protagonist becomes aware that another reality is possible. The quote demonstrates the thought which becomes the turning point in Cecil’s life position. It is also related to the significant oppressive effect in the naturalization frame.
Cultural racism is one of the most understandable and commonly discussed issues. According to Bonilla-Silva, this frame relies on culturally-based arguments (56). It is related to the obstacles created in the process of social developments which obstruct the minorities overcoming existing social situation. This phenomenon of historical patterns turned societal ideas, as well as their material instantiation, into practices, artifacts, institutions, or other manifestations of ‘mind-in-context’ (Salter, Adams, and Perez 151). The demonstration of cultural racism in the movie is complemented by Cecil’s father statement: “This is his (white man) world. We are just living in it” (2:46-3:00). Such a strong differentiation has created the substantial ground for roles’ redistribution. Knowing this, as well as the supportive surroundings, makes it impossible to go beyond the limits of such culturally-based thinking for both parties. One was used to dominate while another one was used to serve. In the movie, this reality contradicts the tendencies prevailing in modern times. Indeed, despite the fact that slavery was abolished in the past, the traces of racial segregation remain.
The last idea is consonant with the fourth frame of Bonilla-Silva – minimization of racism. This notion refers to the social statement that racial issue is not as acute as it was in the past and thus racism does not exist anymore (Bonilla-Silva 57). The Butler points out the opposite notion: “We have two faces: one our and the other we show to white people” (11:00-12:00). While teaching Cecil to be an excellent butler, his mentor claims that black people could not demonstrate their true feeling. Instead, they should navigate through reality with the face that white persons want to see. The mask could be easily linked to the silent adoption of existing rules. This representation is eloquent, it is particularly vivid in the minimization racism’s statement: “If people stopped talking about race, it wouldn’t be a problem anymore” (McClure and Harris 46). Ironically, minimization means ignoring true needs and desires of the minorities and this issue saves its actuality for a long time.
It is a useful experience to review The Butler from the perspective of four frames of colorblind society since, in the movie, they are presented through the artistic style of actualization. Historical perspective in which the racial issue was at the peak of their urgency can help in revealing that basic prejudices were not evident in the context of modern colorblind ideology. Recognition that biases exist regardless of their form, frames, or other masks is the first step toward multicultural democracy. The analysis of the frames in the movie makes the framed aspects of racial inequality evident and helps to raise the awareness of modern ideology. It allows reconsidering the primary biases that hinder a social movement toward multicultural democracy.
To sum up, despite a significant shift in the social development made toward racial tolerance, modern society continues being prejudiced. The attitude towards minorities has changed, but there are still significant frames influencing multicultural democracy on the basic level. Abstract liberalism, naturalization, cultural racism, and minimization of racism are the ground of people’s unconscious justification of the racial inequality. They could stay almost invisible if they would not be actualized, particularly through cinematography. Thus, The Butler confirms this statement since presenting the human racial biases in the light of historical urgency makes them evident and helps identify them in any social environment and, thus, successfully overcome.