Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013) might seem an unlikely candidate for intervening in Hollywood's civil rights genre, given both its nationalistic ending and its recuperation of iconic styles and images. This paper argues, however, that the film's pastiche interrogates past cinematic tropes for race and space; in this sense, it proves counterhistorical, a term indicating not a lack of accuracy but a commitment to illuminating the role of visual media in shaping contemporary understandings of history and to encouraging fresh perspectives on the past. Examining the many forms of constraint produced by iconic images of black and gendered personhood, the film also takes on the spatial icon with which many of these figures are associated – the southern plantation. Both exposing and challenging the ways in which spectacular accounts of southern racism occlude the geographic and political reach of African American movements against oppression, the film inconsistently insists on the importance of thinking across conventional demarcations of space and time. At these moments, it suggests possibilities for how even commercial cinema might contribute to new conceptions of black political history and possibility.