Opening August 16, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is forcing America to revisit its past and acknowledge both the beauty and the horror of the Civil Rights Movement.
In a press conference today for their new groundbreaking film, actors were challenged when a decidedly specific question was asked from the audience of journalists. “Cecil, because of his job learns to put on different masks and faces. One face for when he’s at home with his family, and one when he’s in front of the presidents. It’s very true of the civil rights movement and the truth of that time, but I want to ask, do you as black entertainers and actors still do that today? Do you wear a face for when you are in front of white people and a different one at home?”
After a witty quip from Terrence Howard, who said, “This is my white people face,” before dead-panning, director Lee Daniels chimed in to share her thoughts on what many minorities have called “code switching” or altering one’s disposition in public.
“As I grew in Hollywood I had to put on a face. I talked with a certain diction, I had to dress a certain way, I had to present myself in a certain light so that I could get ahead,” admits Daniels. “It wasn’t until I found myself that I could be myself and present myself. When Obama was elected, that is when I was able to be me and the two faces met.”
After that candid admission, Oprah Winfrey took the mic. “I don’t feel that way at all,” she exclaimed. “I have made a living being myself. When I was 19 years old, I interviewed Jesse Jackson and he said to me then, ‘one of your gifts is being able to be yourself on TV.'” Even when others told the media mogul in her early Chicago days that she would never surpass her peers, she stuck to being herself, refusing to wear a mask for white people to make them comfortable.
But when Cuba Gooding Jr. spoke on the matter, the audience applauded and admired his honestly, commenting on the “duality of the African-American man’s existence.” He spoke about watching what he says in pubic and how aggressive he could be with opponents on ice of his frequent hockey games. Noting the lack of African-American players and the sometimes obvious disrespect of some white players, Cuba was honest about needing to temper his athletic prowess on the ice, for fear of intimidating or appearing to challenge other players.
“There is a certain face I wear on the ice, there is a certain face I wear in the locker room around certain people who have a very definitive opinion of black people,” he says. “Then there’s a very specific face I wear with my children at these very expensive schools that I have them in,” he says, with many of the other actors chuckling, able to relate to the often delicate tightrope walked at predominantly white elementary school. “The film is indicative of the faces that black men had to wear during the Civil Rights Movement, certain faces that they had to wear to survive,” he adds, saying that nothing has changed. “The Trayvon Martin situation sparked another reminder that we do wear certain faces that represent a mentality indicative of our surroundings. Terrence [Howard] spoke very wonderfully about this yesterday that if Trayvon had recognized the face that he needed to wear at that particular moment, it might have been a very different outcome.”
Other actors nodded their head in agreement but no one else addressed Trayvon’s murder head on. Whether he was blaming Trayvon for not ‘wearing a mask’ or whether he was exposing a harsh reality that black men still need to wear masks to disarm aggressive white men, is unknown.
However, this discussion made us think about the masks that we as African Americans wear to make others more comfortable with us, and the masks that hide our true authentic selves. In The Butler, Forest Whitaker’s character had to wear an emotionless, stoic face while serving Presidents Nixon and Eisenhower.
“Faces are a theme in this movie that cannot be ignored or slighted,” adds Cuba.
But tell us, are masks and altered faces tools that we still need to employ in 2013?