The Curious Case of Integrated Racism in Benjamin Button

Ann Hornaday

Ota Benga 1904

Ota Benga

Film critic, Ann Hornaday recently wrote an article in The Washington Post about the film “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which connects one of the characters in the film, with Ota Benga - an African of the Bawta tribe (otherwise known as a  pygmy), who was enslaved and later “displayed,” Hottentot Venus style in the Bronx Zoo, beginning in 1906.  Hornaday, the great-great-great grandniece of William Temple Hornaday, the man who exhibited Ota Benga, reveals her ignorance up until  a few years ago, about her ancestor’s role in displaying another human being. Hornaday says:

My father never met “Temple,” as he called his great-great-uncle. But he often related stories passed down from his own father, who recalled him as an eccentric man — a teetotaler, for example, known to make an exception for a glass or two of champagne. Another favorite family tale was how during his stint as the first director of the New York Zoological Park (more commonly known as the Bronx Zoo), Temple invited my grandfather, then a medical student, to come to New York and oversee the monkey house. (Before running the Bronx Zoo, Temple spent eight years at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, where he helped plan the National Zoo.)

That would have been the same monkey house where Temple displayed Ota Benga, but I’d never heard his name until several years ago, when I heard his story on the radio. I was sipping coffee and reading the paper, wondering with half an ear how anyone could put a fellow human being in a zoo, when the name “William Temple Hornaday” rang out. I put the coffee down, mortified, and listened more closely. 

Ota Benga possibly at the Bronx Zoo

The article entitled, “Basest Instinct,” explored Hornaday’s unexpected connection to Ota Benga, and Ota Benga’s celluloid facsimile in the Christmas release film, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Read the  entire article here. Hornaday shares how she explored her family’s connection to Ota Benga. Initially she asked her father:

When I first heard about Ota Benga, I asked my father whether he knew about him. He responded immediately and un-self-consciously. “Oh yes,” he said, his voice trailing off, an ellipsis that served as an apt metaphor for America’s ongoing conversation about race, in which so much has gone unspoken, misremembered and distorted over hundreds of years. It’s the same silence that explains why it’s common to meet descendants of slaves, but far more rare to meet descendants of slave owners. It’s the same silence that lets so many white Americans think of race as someone else’s story.

Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Hornaday’s admission, her honesty about her own lack of knowledge of her ancestor’s history and how she came to see that history, reflected as a character in “Benjamin Button,” serves as an example of how racial history and racism are embedded in U.S. history. Moreover, it shows how that history refracted and reframed through media, is integrated, reshaped and fed back to us, without the needed analysis that would break the link between the reincarnated image, and the oppressive history it mimics and represents. 

To be sure, film critics have beamed about “Button,” calling it a timeless tale of love, loss, and aging. And in large part, that is true. The movie is beautiful to watch and certainly intriguing. There are in fact, touching moments. “Button,” chronicles the life and ultimately the death, of Benjamin Button, a boy born, aging in reverse. In the film, Benjamin’s frantic, disgusted and despairing father first tries to drown his newborn son, interrupted by police officers, he instead leaves him on the steps of a nursing home – which as it turns out, is just the right place for Benjamin to be raised. Based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the film uses Fitzgerald’s short story as a guideline as opposed to adhering to the story entirely as it is written. Gary Collins, in his review of the movie explains that, “In contrast to Fitzgerald’s story, Fincher’s adaptation casts Benjamin as a foundling abandoned by his frightened father outside a New Orleans’ seniors home. The man-child known as Benjamin is quickly adopted by the building’s barren black housekeeper Queenie (Taraji P. Henson)…Periodically, this apolitical faintness undermines Fincher’s overall subtext. For instance, there is no analysis of race or class relations, despite Benjamin being raised by African-American parents. Nor is there any genuine attempt to reconcile Benjamin’s later accumulation of wealth. Instead, Benjamin becomes a man simultaneously of his time and not; an individual desperate to freeze time, who increasingly becomes wary of his situation.” (Gary Collins, 12/27/2008 http://www.noripcord.com/reviews/film/curious-case-benjamin-button; emphasis added.)

Taraji P. Henson in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

What’s been most interesting to me, is to observe how reviewers of this movie, and Hollywood itself, have obscured or ignored the race and class representations in the film – content instead to congratulate itself for the aesthetic beauty and apparent gravitas of the film (Hollywood actors who let themselves be aged! Gasp!) Collins’ quote is a great example. He chides the movie for having no analysis of race or class, and yet himself refers to Taraji P. Henson, rather callously as the “barren black housekeeper,” who’s name is Queenie, no less. He neglects to engage in his own critique (either in the structure or language of his writing) or in his analysis. Only Hornaday seems able, possibly because of her very personal connection, to splice apart and mention aloud the racial history that is ignored (or tacitly implied – as when Benjamin and Ota’s film incarnation sit at the back of the street car on which they ride) in the film.

This isn’t to say that Hornaday gets it all right – the Post comments section is littered with comments about how brave Hornaday is for telling “her” story, and she does bring to light a very important aspect of the film. Certainly, I appreciate that, even as I note that  in fact, the story of Ota Benga is not hers, though she and her family are indeed entangled in Ota Benga’s story. But the praise, in the comments, and in Hornaday’s own  revealing of herself in the article, reminds me of a joke many Black comics have made: when people want you to congratulate or praise them, for doing what is in fact, their job – what they are supposed to be doing.  Fathers who want you to get excited when they parent or pay child support, folks who show up for work on time and want acknowledgement, the government wanting appreciation for holding hearings for an SEC which they let steal $50 billion, or in this case, when white Americans remove the veil from their conscious and unconscious connections to and participation in race and class in America. In short, the awe created when white Americans choose to be engaged in critical thinking about race and class.

But I digress.

Perhaps Scott Foundas, writing for The Kansas City Pitch, comes far closer when he explains the dynamics of identity as represented in the film:

Roth reduces our complex times to a parade of shockingly straight-faced kitsch. A hellfire-and-brimstone tent revivalist imbues Benjamin with the holy spirit; a pygmy Lothario serves as his introduction to the outside world; and a drunken, Irish tugboat captain shows him how to be a man. But where Gump actively trivialized history, Benjamin Button effectively ignores it. Although Benjamin briefly exchanges fire with a German submarine during World War II, and Hurricane Katrina makes a cameo toward the end, this movie about a white baby raised by a black adoptive mother during the inglorious years of the Jim Crow South never once addresses race.(Scott Foundas, The Kansas City Pitch, 12/23/2008 http://www.pitch.com/2008-12-25/film/the-curious-case-of-benjamin-button/)

Taraji P. Henson introduces Benjamin Button, photo credit to Merrick Morton

Taraji P. Henson, as Queenie, introduces Benjamin Button, to his new home. Photo credit: Merrick Morton

 Even Oprah missed (or carefully sidestepped) the race dynamics  of the film, neglecting to have Taraji P. Henson appear on her show when Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt appeared, and not asking a single question about the race dynamics that might arise for Benjamin being raised in by Black parents. Henson herself occludes the issue. In an interview about the film she says, “I just thought that was really, really bold to make the mother [figure] African-American. Initially when I got the script, I thought there were bold choices across the board.”  According to the article, written by Barbara Vancheri,”the original story of Benjamin Button is a scant 24 pages and features no one named Queenie, although a woman named Nanny makes a late, brief appearance.” (Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri, http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08356/936135-60.stm, 12/21/08) Henson, then is in fact, thanking Hollywood for re-writing a Hattie McDanielesque part into a supposedly modern “post-racial” movie. Given that Roth and Fincher made so many other liberal alterations from story to movie, why not write a more nuanced “Queenie.”? Better yet, why not give her a first and last name, and aspirations and dreams, outside of her desire for a child?

I’d offer that as Hornaday suggests about America,  Fincher and Roth, are unable to authentically engage in an understanding of race because “so much has gone unspoken, misremembered and distorted over hundreds of years. It’s the same silence that explains why it’s common to meet descendants of slaves, but far more rare to meet descendants of slave owners. It’s the same silence that lets so many white Americans think of race as someone else’s story.” (Hornaday) That for a film where building character a connection between a character and audience is paramount, for Queenie’s character to be so flat, represents a conflict with how to approach race – an example where  Roth is unable to imagine Black people as fully integrated into the story of American history. So very literally, in creating characters of color, or characters that are not mainstream, those authentic voices – voices that could have had an opportunity to tell a full history are strangely absent. Even Forrest Gump, to which this film has been compared, as a character, made interesting observations about class, race, and gender. In comparison, none of the characters in Button note race or class – as Keith Phillips points out “Button should get a unique perspective on life from his unique condition. Instead, it apparently keeps his eyes wide and his mind set to “naïf” as he wanders through the decades and an on-again, off-again relationship with the restless Blanchett. (Keith Phipps, 1/3/2008 http://austin.decider.com/movies/curious-case-of-benjamin-button,68/) In missing the opportunity to make Benjamin and the viewer real observers, the film missed the opportunity to turn a solid holiday movie, into a truly fantastic film.

Instead, Queenie is weighted with foolish dialogue that consists of  the “I believe in Jesus” variety declarations – and thus robbing Henson of the  opportunities as an actor, to dig deep and show the full range of her talents. Never is there any examination of what she might have felt adopting Benjamin – it’s assumed to be natural. And why wouldn’t we assume such an adoption to be normalized? Through much of American history, Black mothers for white children has been a familiar trope. In fact, Black womyn did much of the raising of white children (as many Black, Asian, and Latina womyn continue to do today.)  particularly in the South. But what exactly would possess a Black woman in New Orleans (where the movie has been moved, from Baltimore where Fitzgerald originally set the  story), near the nadir of white aggression on Black Americans, to take in and raise a white child? Historically, how would that work out? I think the implied answer, is that it’s only possible when that white child is seen as different ; when that child is seen as deformed or unnatural – then the child can be handed over to a Black mother. To the film’s credit, the issue of disability and “how people are made,” is dealt with upfront. We are told Benjamin is “unusual,” quickly corrected from making him deformed as the film progresses.

The fantasy of the Black mother, seems a particularly white American fantasy. Contrast this, with Colson Whitehead’s recently released book, Apex Hides the Hurt, in which a speechless white child stumbles into a Black camp settlement, immediately beginning an uproar of panic and fear. All of the Black people are terrified, no one immediately wants to take in the child, without a detailed conversation about all of the consequences. Because as history has shown, Black folks are well aware of the consequences of being misunderstood by white folks, when the power of racism and the violence it can incite exists. It’s so clear for the character’s in Whitehead’s novel, that they develop a plan to address the issue – and it doesn’t include keeping the orphan.

The image we are presented of Queenie is an old image – a reincarnation of the self-effacing, solely intuiting Black mammy, who doesn’t consider consequences when protecting white people – particularly white children. It’s the fantasy that Black people, particularly Black womyn, long to and delight in, taking care of white America. And it’s a timely representation, at a historic moment, in which many people are quite unsettled by having a Black president, and are wondering: will he take care of us? Don’t worry, like the man said, he “will be your President too.”

Even Ann Hornaday’s well written review of “Benjamin Button,” calls out the film for being less interesting than it could have been. Yet Hornaday, does not address the embedded depictions of race in her mainstream review. In fact, she mentions nothing about racism in her review, even though it figures prominently in her “Basest Instincts” article. A slightly amiss omission, that I think would have made her initial review of the movie, and her subsequent admission of connection to and awareness of U.S. racism, even more compelling. Personally, Roth and Fincher are responsible for not using the extraordinary resources they had (sparkling and exceptionally talented cast, technological breakthroughs, great story to base the screenplay on) to their best advantage.

Now all this said, there were two moments in the film, that I thought were touching – had they been expounded upon, the film would have been more meaningful. When Benjamin, sleeping below Queenie, reaches up and grasps her hand. The image of him authentically seeking comfort from Queenie, openly showing his vulnerability and need for connection is touching – and in a landscape in which white America often asks for Black Americans to proffer comfort (often while white America is engaged in some form of abuse of people of color) these moment of clear vulnerability and need, makes bare what most people of color know: that white America needs and desires us, particularly in the role of comforter. And that ultimately, all of us need comfort. Second, is when Benjamin enjoys a moment with his stepfather in the kitchen, as his stepfather recites Shakespeare. The actor who plays the part, does so superbly, particularly in this scene – and the moment between the two characters seems genuine. It also  serves as a contrast to the image of Mammy and Lothario (which Ota Benga’s celluloid representation is revamped into).

Part of me wonders if Roth supposed that Americans viewing the film would have a greater understanding of American history, and thus be able to decipher the nuances and references he dispersed throughout the film: to the multiracial family that lost a son (who must have been passing or in an all-Black unit,because the armed forces were not yet integrated in WWI), that led to the creation of the clock that is tied to Benjamin’s “unusual circumstances;” to the bow to Ota Benga whose film incarnation has a far more romantic ending (and philisophical perspective on being locked in a cage), than Benga, who killed himself, had in real life; to setting the film in New Orleans, and then showing through flashbacks that race and class were always intertwined; to the bohemian Beat generation in New York and Paris; to Hurricane Katrina. I’d like to say that Roth and Fincher made a highly intelligent film, with nuances that Americans may just happen to  miss…

I’d really like to say that.

Additional review about about race in “Button”:

http://blog.spout.com/2008/12/22/the-curious-case-of-benjamin-button-review/

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3 Responses to “The Curious Case of Integrated Racism in Benjamin Button”

  1. Hey there,
    I followed this link from your comment on the Fade In thread at Racialicious. I Just wanted to say how terrific this analysis is. I am glad I discovered your blog.

    best,
    Joe

  2. cocolamala Says:

    another curious detail:

    Queenie is not barren, she has a daughter (i guess after her boyfriend marries her). Her daughter opens the door to Benjamin after he returns home. Oddly, she does not recognize him or hug him or look pleased to see a long lost relative return home. I think he would have been conspicuous presence in the household, at least spoken of in his absence. Queenie doesn’t even introduce him to her daughter, saying “this is your brother”. There is no sibling relationship between them. I would think the daughter would know that she grew up with a white brother, or at least that she had an “older brother” figure whom her mother loved a great deal. That’s why the familial relationship was hollow for me. It was more like “Queenie is my guardian”, than “she is my mother and her other children are my family.”

  3. Reblogged this on nomasons and commented:
    I am not a movie-fan (although I might watch that Batman film tomorrow), so, when Mr Renegade, in his interview with Bernth Lindfors, referenced this film, and character, I thought I had to look into it. Sure enough, the denigration of a black female also fell upon a black male.

    Although this review doesn’t place much emphasis on this character, it still examines and deconstructs the theme of marginality in this mainstream movie.

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