Is Benjamin Button Racist?

I saw "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" for the second time today, and as was pointed out to me, that's six hours of my life.

So why'd I go back for more Benjamin? Well, because I tend to obsess about several of the movie's themes.

First, I frequently think about the idea of starting over. Can the average, everyday person, someone less wealthy and famous than, for example, Madonna, reinvent themselves? And what does it take for someone in the middle of their life, engrossed in the routine of everyday existence, to start over? What needs to happen for that person to take a chance?

Second, I think about missed opportunities and the "what if" factor quite a bit. Too often I'm musing about what would have happened if I'd driven instead of taking the train? What if I'd never moved to Los Angeles and had instead stayed in New York? Or if I'd never left Chicago?

Finally, I think quite a bit about the major theme of mortality. Perhaps it's a side-effect of living in LA, but I am increasingly aware of not only aging and looking older, but moreso of the clock constantly ticking closer to the moment Death comes to claim me.

However, despite all those musings of mine, I've also gotten into a couple of conversations with folks who absolutely, positively loathed Button because they think it's racist. They hated it because they felt like the film was just another typical Hollywood racist story with major "magic negro-itis" going on. (If you haven't seen the film, you may want to stop reading RIGHT NOW because I don't want to be the spoiler.)

Unlike the original F. Scott Fitzgerald story, this film is mostly set in New Orleans. We find out in the first ten minutes about a blind French-born clock maker, Mr. Gateau, who is married to a brown-skinned Creole woman. I found myself wondering during my second viewing, "Does old Mr. Gateaux know that he's married to a sistah?" I mean, he doesn't seem to get any heat for being married to someone who's not white. He still gets work and isn't shunned by other white people for being married to his wife.

That strains credulity a little bit for me, even if some of the turn-of-the-century Frenchmen down in New Orleans could and did go beyond the racial norms of the rest of white America.

The other thing I wondered was, "Is their son passing for white?" I wondered about the son passing because when he goes to war, he ends up in a regiment with white soldiers. That's a big "hmm" because I don't recall our armed forces being all that integrated in WWI. But having extended family who've passed, I know all about how your white when you're around white folks and then black when you come home.

Next, after Benjamin's white father abandons him due to his unusual appearance, he is cared for and raised by a black woman, Queenie, played by Taraji P. Henson. Folks are questioning whether or not Queenie is just another stereotypical Mammy.

I felt the character was a woman who really wanted a baby, saw a chance to have a baby, and was so religious that she truly believed Benjamin was a gift from God. I wonder if we're so used to seeing stereotypical relationships between black women and white children that we can't see a genuine, loving relationship. Are we standing so close to the wall that we can't see the whole picture? Why can't a black woman love a white child without being a mammy? Why can't a white child actually love a black woman in a non-objectified way? Also, unlike a stereotypical mammy, all the raising wasn't done by a black woman in the background while the white mother gets all the glory.

One of the most moving moments in the film for me was when Benjamin's daddy dies and Queenie remarks that the dad will be buried next to Benjamin's momma (his white mother who died in childbirth). Benjamin immediately tells Queenie, "You're my momma." And you know he means it.

I actually found myself thinking more about the story Queenie tells the old folks about Benjamin's arrival: She tells them that her sister had an unfortunate "accident", had a baby and it came out white.

So was the sister getting busy with a white guy and got pregnant or are we supposed to believe that two black folks had a white, Brad Pitt baby? Not saying that's impossible genetically, but still. And if the father of the baby is white, again, I'm not saying it's totally unheard of for a biracial baby to "look" totally white, but, all this is never questioned in the film.

Not to mention, especially in a place like New Orleans, the one drop rule was in full effect throughout the story. It wouldn't have mattered if Benjamin was born looking white. One drop of black blood makes you black in America, no matter what you look like. So if the story told from the get go is that his momma is black, he should, logically be treated like a black child and, subsequently, as a black man. Right?

That does not happen. Instead, Benjamin is CLEARLY accepted as being a white child. There's a scene set in the 1930's where he's playing under a table with the little white girl, Daisy. Her grandmother comes upon them and scolds them both, but she especially turns her wrath on Benjamin, treating him like he's a dirty old man. It's fair because that's what he looks like, appearance-wise. But, I can more easily imagine a white lady in New Orleans being furious at discovering what she thinks is a black man (no matter how white he looks) playing with her white granddaughter.

As he gets older, Benjamin is treated as a white person. It makes sense coming from his mother because she knows that's what he is. After a second viewing, I wondered if Benjamin being accepted as a white man is because his white daddy finally shows up and "claims" him? The problem with me thinking this though is that his white daddy doesn't claim him till almost halfway through the film.

So, is he essentially a white man who doesn't know he's white but he's in a situation where he's passing as white? And, what's up with Benjamin only falling in love with super thin, super pale white ladies (Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton) instead of someone who looks like his black momma? He could get with the black prostitutes in the brothels, but why was there was no diversity when it came to the real love interest department?

The thing that saves me from analyzing the racial dynamics of Benjamin Button too much is that 1) the story is clearly one of magical realism, and 2) before Benjamin's black or before he's white, he's an oddity. He never really fits in anywhere because of his affliction of aging backwards. In a way, Benjamin's race becomes secondary to the entire story because he's a total freakish sideshow, an alien.

Of course, race being secondary is a luxury black folks have never truly had in America. Racism and being made aware of our race is always there, no matter the what-ifs, self reinventions or chances we take. Some would say we can only escape America's racism through our own mortality.

Ultimateley though, answering the question "Is Benjamin Button racist?" was not on the forefront of my mind when I walked out Hollywood's Arclight Theater. And, as I drove down Sunset Boulevard to my home, sunglasses on, tears still coating my cheeks, I could only think about how I almost never see old people in this shiny city.

I could only think about wanting to call the people I love, because, as is said so often in the film, "You never know what's coming for you."


Ingrid said…
okay, i'm going to see this movie. initially i thought the premise was really simple. "strange old baby grow young; people gawk; weird things happen." but know the complexities you've described make me want to see it.

as for race, most hollywood movies may use race/ethnic groups as backdrops. race is inserted, rewritten, deleted or oblivious (at times) when convenient. does that make sense? that's what this seems like. you've still convinced me to go see it--simply upon the elaboration of the character's connections.
I havent seen this movie yet and I really want to! Sometimes I think we forget that most movies are escapism fare and historical facts and timelines are manipulated to tell a good story. I like that you took it that way and it encourages me to want to see it even more!
I'm curious to see this movie as well.

I so understand what you said about never seeing old people in Los Angeles. Where are they, in nursing homes?

I see old folks here all the time. Some are in great shape, others need canes or walkers but they are out and about, usually with friends or family. My landlady is 81 and fierce.
Jennifer said…
Now I HAVE to see this movie! Great review, Liz! You really analyzed the characters and thought through the relationships -- and made me want to go see this. Teaching full-time and having a daughter doesn't leave me much free time, but I'm going to carve out some time for this one!
Anonymous said…
I have not watched this movie yet, but when I saw a advert. for it the other day, I asked my younger brother if he would want to live "backwards", Born old and dying young. He rather quickly replied "hell no, what if I die before I make it to the "young" part?" LOL
Anonymous said…
Well, I haven't seen the film yet but after your comments I really want to check it out and do some obsessing myself! It sounds really intriguing. And hey, you've got all these other commenters wanting to go see it - are you on commission or what?
Mes Deux Cents said…
Hi Liz,

The interesting thing about New Orleans, under French rule, was Le Code Noir.

The French had a set of laws that governed their interactions with free and non-free Blacks.

So it might have been that the French clock maker’s marriage wasn't really that out of the ordinary since it was legal under Le Code Noir for Frenchmen to marry Black women.

These rules also made it so that the child of a French man or woman and a Black slave was free.

So I think that we all may see this film through the prism of Southern Slavery rather than French slavery, which was very different, as well as the interactions between Whites and Blacks very different.

Obviously Slavery is Slavery, so I'm not saying that French Slavery was any sort of ideal situation, just different from the portrayals that most of us usually see.
Unknown said…
Awesome interpretation Liz.

I LOVED the movie and cried throughout for SO many reasons.

My great-grandad was product of a, shall we say, New Orleans liaison in the late 1700's . The rich french-massa and his (married, in her late 40's) black maid.

Luckily in New Orleans, back in those days, it was so vastly multi-cultural. Many aristocratic creole families and native americans had slaves themselves.

So, from the writer's standpoint, he could have written just about anything and in Nola it could have been true. Just read the Lost German Slave Girl by John Bailey to get a feel for what I've unconvered reserching my roots, YIKES!

I so love how you break it all down. The main point is that it is a good picture ~ and if there is discussion, than everyone did their job magnificently.

I am voting for you to have a review blog! You're good...
Unknown said…
I thought the movie was very good.

I get what you are saying about them having a white baby, however I think it was more of an issue that the baby was old looking and pretty much too old to leave the house or street. So I think that, was the main reason why there was no racial backlash.

What would we notice before color? A 70 year old looking 5 year old.
I recall him being in a wheelchair until he was around 8 years old, and not leaving the house.
Anonymous said…
I loved this movie. You must remember when the story was written it would not have been unusual for a black woman to be a care giver and loved by the child she cared for. It was very convient that the white father was well off which allowed Benjamin the freedom to start over. What a great life to have felt so much love growing up that he was able to go out and experience the love that would look after him in his "younger" years.
Anonymous said…
Los Angelista,
Not sure about you not seeing older people in LA. I see them all the time, when I’m there. Can’t go shopping at the Food4Less on 103rd and Compton without talking to older, mature adults. Had lots of nice, brief conversations with older people inside the Louisiana Fried Chicken on Manchester and, I think Normandie (I know it’s between Vermont and Western, fer sur). Talked with any number of older women, standing in line at the Target (that’s Tar-shae to you, lol) on Century. What do ya mean no old people? Heck, the guy that helped me fill up my rental car at the “self-serve” Shell station, on Central, right under the 105, looked about 97 years old. Washed my windshield too, he did (got 3 bucks for it, lol).
Ohhhhhh, you mean old people, like white, affluent ones. Gotta cha. Uh, I think Charlton Hesston found the answer to that question in Soylent Green. Old-looking, white people in LA is NOT acceptable.
LOL. You funny.
As far as movies and the “maybe’s” of life; hey, I got enough problems with the reality of my circumstances. I try to stay in the “here”, and, as much as possible, the “now”. It’s all I can have any effect on in life. Can’t “live” the past, can’t hardly know the future.
Ndelible said…
Great themes that I barely thought about while I watched the movie with my family. I thought the story about where Benjamin came from was mostly for the residents of the home, not really anyone else. So, I'm not sure how anyone else (on the outside) would have thought of him.

And, being a big booster of interracial relationships, I too, found the love interests strange. I thought that Benjamin would have naturally gravitated to a black woman, creole or no.

Now I think I have to see it again. Darn you!
Anonymous said…
I love the way you think. God. I need to visit you more often

Temple said…
Curious case of white people claiming black blood is what I've been noticing since Barack became President Elect.

I've witnessed 7 white people say that they have some black blood in their lineage since Nov. 5. That's a phenomenon.
Dirty Red said…
I have not seen the movie. I really have no desire too. But you broke it down. I guess I will go get it at my barbershop this weekend. At least then I can break it up in pieces and not spend 3 hours in a theatre with a bunch people talking about how cute Brad Pitt is.
Liz Dwyer said…
I've wanted to see the movie since I saw the first preview months ago. It just looked so interesting to me and it didn't disappoint. You're so right about how race is inserted as a backdrop though. We make the setting more authentic but the stories are almost never really about us.

Historical facts definitely are manipulated. Whenever I see "Based on a true story" I assume that one fact has been taken and then the rest made up... and this movie doesn't even claim that so I guess I should just roll with the totally fictional fantasy thing. Hope you enjoy Benjamin when you see it. :)

Yep, other than the old guy, Hans, that I go over and visit, I really don't see old folks around here too much. And that's despite the fact that there's an old folks home two streets away. Those peeps NEVER come out of that place.

I hear you on not having much free time for movies. I saw this on my birthday the first time and then the second time, it was a huge squeeze to see it. But it was really worth it. Hope you like it when you see it.

That is HILARIOUS! Your younger brother is funny, and SO right!

LOL, not on commission although it would be fun to write reviews and get paid for it.

Could be. I don't know enough about Le Code Noir, that's for sure. But Mr. Gateau probably married his wife in the 1890's since their son fought in WWI so that's why I wonder how much it would've been accepted. In general, racism does not seem to be much of an issue for any of the characters in the film which is odd for the time and the setting.

I'll definitely check out that book. One of the things that really struck me about the film is that it did capture that magic of New Orleans, that feeling that anything could happen there. I loved that. Sadly, it seems like that magic is being somewhat erased in our modern age. So interesting about your family history. I'll bet it's fascinating to find all that out.

Yes, that's why I think that ultimately his uniqueness, his affliction of being old while young was the dominating factor in his life.

Nope, it wouldn't have been unusual at all. Yeah, if we all had rich dudes that showed up and was like, "All this is yours..." LOL, I'd be on the back of a motorcyle too, driving around, looking like, "WHAT???" hahaha!

You know there aren't hardly any old folks of any colors rolling through my neck of the woods. When I worked in South LA, sure, I saw older folks all the time. But up here in hipster central, I feel like there's an unspoken rule that you have to be out after you turn 60! Or maybe all the pilates and botox is just making the 60 year olds look 40 and so I don't recognize them for what they are.

That's why I wanted to see it again too. There was a LOT going on that I needed a second chance to process. I know people love who they love but I wouldn't have found it unrealistic for him to fall in love with someone from a different background. I suppose it was a bit too much for one story though.

Hugs to you too! :)

Now THAT is very interesting. Maybe folks are finally feeling like they can acknowledge their heritage without being ostracized or treated differently.

Dirty Red,
LOL, I have not seen a bootleg in so long. The last one I saw was Girl 6. I wish movie studios would just put the films on-demand right away. I'd pay $13 at home to see it too.
Anonymous said…
I haven't seen the movie - and hope to. you bring some interesting perspectives to it - as always.

As to your pondering the fate of the old in LA: I know where all of them are -- here in the OC! :)
Liz Dwyer said…
Is that where everybody over the age of 50 flees too? LOL! I'd rather head to Santa Barbara if I could! :)

Seriously though, I was so happy to have met an older gentleman three blocks away on my evening walk yesterday. He was playing a violin in his garage and I loved chatting with him.
Anonymous said…
The film definitely deserves attention and is worth watching. I came across different opinions as far as this movie. That doesn't prove that the film is good or bad - it proves only that it is popular and the thoughts and ideas expressed in it deserve attention and raise active discussion (just see the number of comments here) download The Curious Case of Benjamin Button from rapidshare
Anonymous said…
I liked the movie the first two times I saw it, too. And, then, after becoming more aware of how racism (white supremacy) has to be and is embedded in all films that white people control, I watched it a third time. The fact that I enjoyed it so much the first two times shows just hoe victimized I have been.

The black lady who raised the grotesque child was not given any of the money of his white biological father.

The black male midget ( Congolese Twa or "pygmy") in this fictional film was an actual historical figure that the story/film/project commanders weaved in. His name was Ota Benga. In the early 20th century, Benga was purchased and, amongst other demeaning and savage experiences,was placed in the monkey exhibit at the Bronx zoo. His existence ended in suicide. This is the kind of racist inside joke that can be found in almost all films....And, then they surround it with soft and noble sentiment about white people... identify

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