In the wake of the George Zimmerman trial two movies have come out that have helped shape the discussion on race and the racial divide. The docudrama Fruitvale Station explored a similar real-life shooting, but preceded the tragic event with a poignant preamble that chronicled the struggles of a young black male trying to go straight in a society seemingly stacked against him, and more recently Lee Daniels' The Butler, followed the life of a black man (Forest Whitaker bringing grace and dignity to the role) raised during the early 1900s on an antebellum plantation in Georgia where he witnesses his father shot and killed by a plantation supervisor (who had just raped his mother) and later goes on to become a member of the White House wait staff, serving eight presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan during his long tenure.
As a freelance film critic, formerly with the now (and sadly) defunct Boston Phoenix and currently publishing in a variety of media outlets, I was carefully preparing my review of The Butler for a South Carolina paper, and in looking at the film's credits, I noticed that the basis for Danny Strong's script was a Washington Post article by a reporter named Wil Haygood, who in print had documented the decades-long career of Eugene Allen, the man Whitaker's fictional Cecil Gaines is based upon.
The name Haygood jumped out at me. Back in 1997 at a press screening of Amistad at the old Boston Cheri Theater, I laughed aloud at the scene where the imprisoned slaves wonder what a crowd of Puritans praying (for the Africans) outside their window were doing. One remarks, "I think they're entertainers," and another counters, "Then why do they look so miserable?" It was a classic Spielberg moment and emblematic of the director's talent to bring a touch of levity to dark and sensitive subjects.
Mr. Haygood, who is black and then worked for The Boston Globe, was in attendance. We were a small private audience of about 20 or 30 in a theater that could hold 400. Afterwards, Mr. Haygood caught up to me and in an angry confrontational tone demanded to know why I thought slavery was "a joke." Fighting through the shock, I tried to explain that I didn't and that the scene was intended to be funny, but Mr. Haygood wasn't listening. He was incensed and while he never called me a racist, I felt I was being accused of such, or worse.
Part of that was due to Mr. Haygood's visible outrage and part of that was me. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only Caucasian who suffers from "white man's guilt" but also, and ironically, as a person in an interracial marriage with a biracial child, I often find conversations about race awkward because I become acutely aware of being a white male and dread the looming moment when someone resorts to the "because you're white" trump card, which in its own way, is a form of racial bias and ultimately defeats the purpose of having a contemplative and constructive conversation about race.
Eventually, Mr. Haygood and I were separated by a throng of other cinephiles and journalists exiting the theater. That weekend, Mr. Haygood published a fantastic piece about race, cinema and James Baldwin in the Globe. I read the article but did not know at that time, the name or association of the man who came at me angrily. A few days later, at another press screening, a publicist sidled up to me with a copy of the Sunday Globe and informed me of her knowledge of the incident. She then unfurled the paper and waving the article before me, told me not to give it much thought, because "this is what Pulitzers are made of."
But I did give it thought. Lots, and spent considerable time in tracking down Mr. Haygood. I left a long apologetic message on his answering machine and hung up, believing my message might get one quick listen before it was deleted. I felt good about my approach, because even though I did not willfully offend Mr. Haygood, he was offended and for that, I was sorry.
After that, I considered the matter closed, but I was wrong. A few weeks later, I came home to find a message on my machine. The tone was cheerful, friendly, almost avuncular. Mr. Haygood apologized for what he called a "misunderstanding" and thanked me for my thanks on his article and that was that was that. I never saw or spoke to Mr. Haygood again, but wished I had. Our phone message exchange was salve, but was not the cathartic face-to-face I had longed for. To this day I am still haunted by how a nervous laugh in the dark and the different color of our skins led to something so toxic and unfortunate, especially on a matter we were of the same mind on. Still, I draw from that incident and appreciate now, more than ever, the power of film to provoke and affect.