Paula Deen off the hook? Lyndon Johnson, Lee Daniels and the N-word

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With her deep-fried food empire lying in charred scraps around her, fallen Southern cooking queen Paula Deen may have been thrown a lifeline by an unlikely savior — Lee Daniels, director of “The Butler.”

The film, which opens Aug. 16, tells the story of the civil rights struggle through the eyes of Cecil Gaines, a character based on the real-life Eugene Allen, a black man who worked as a White House butler for eight U.S. presidents from 1952 to 1986.

In the ongoing fallout from her admission in court testimony to having used the N-word, Ms. Deen has lost the Food Network series that made her a multimedia star, “Paula’s Home Cooking,” a multibook deal with Ballantine Books and a number of lucrative business relationships with retail giants including Target, Wal-Mart and Home Depot.

In the context of the Deep South culture of an earlier era, interracial dynamics were complicated, and even the use of the N-word could be misleading, Mr. Daniels, the Oscar-nominated director of “Precious” (2009), told a group of reporters at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Orlando, Fla.

In Mr. Daniels‘ new film, President Lyndon Johnson, a Texan who did more to secure equality under the law for American blacks than any U.S. president other than Abraham Lincoln, is depicted as using the N-word liberally. Mr. Daniels explained that the irony that a civil rights hero like Johnson (played by Liev Schreiber in the film) could unselfconsciously employ the racial slur without malice was intentionally highlighted to give a flavor of the complexities of race, language and culture.

“For me, it was very strategic,” Mr. Daniels explained. “When we did use it, it was used later on by Cuba [Gooding Jr., as the head butler] making fun of someone that did use it, Lyndon Johnson. It was sort of the joke that this guy uses it. So when he says it and talks about, it opens up — like Paula Deen — the concept of white people loving us and really loving us and feeling that it’s fine to use the word nigga. That’s how Johnson felt.”

Alluding to the Voting Rights Act, whose passage was secured by Johnson, Mr. Daniels continued: “He did something that was incredible for us that’s trying to be taken away from us right now. And yet, he used that word just like, ‘Pass the grits.’ Racism is a very hard thing to explain, especially in the South.”

Of course, Paula Deen is no Lyndon Johnson, and recipes for chicken-fried steak with milk gravy wouldn’t seem to purchase quite the same indulgence of racial guilt as landmark LBJ civil rights measures like the Civil Rights Act (1964), Voting Rights Act (1965) and Fair Housing Act (1968). (Mr. Daniels did say it was hard to explain.)

Mr. Daniels‘ much anticipated film is officially titled “Lee Daniels‘ The Butler,” as the awkward result of a recent ruling by the MPAA in a dispute between the film’s producers and Warner Brothers over rights to the title “The Butler.”

The film stars Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”) as Cecil Gaines and Oprah Winfrey as his wife Gloria.

 

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