Chatting with The Butler’s Director Lee Daniels, Forest Whittaker, and Oprah Winfrey
By: Ellis Nassour
Part One: Lee Daniels and Forest Whitaker
Even with a shoestring budget and what amounts to a cast of hundreds, including a long list of top screen and stage names, Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels, shooting The Butler last summer in New Orleans, more often than not in his PJs, where he either had sets built or shot on location, completed photography in an amazing 41 days.
Says Daniels, "It’s hard for me to do a PG-13 movie. I had to restrain myself, but I did it. There’s no sexual content, little profanity, and the violence is at a minimum – though, when depicting the late 50s and early 60s, we’re dealing with a very violent period. This is my baby, but The Butler isn’t just a movie for me, it’s a movement."
The official run time is two hours and 10 minutes. However, with photos circulating on the web of a couple of other notable names working on set, we might expect a slew of bonus deleted material on the DVD release.
The film is inspired by a 2008 Washington Post article, following the inauguration of President Obama, about Gene Allen, a White House butler over seven administrations, starting with Harry Trumann. Mr. Allen died in 2010. The screenplay deals with fact with a lot of fiction thrown in.
It’s appropriate, but totally coincidental, that The Butler comes out as we head toward the 50th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to action with the August 28th March on Washington and his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
LEE DANIELS, as he did, co-producing Monster’s Ball and directing the riveting Precious…, likes dealing with profound issues that dramatic have punch, "but without being preachy. I didn’t want the film to be a history lesson or repetitive, even if some events kept repeating. My goal wasn’t political, but to tell a story that would give audiences a depth of understanding of civil rights history, and how much we’ve grown. It was important to show how the policies of each administration affected not only our country but also our very human presidents.
One aspect of The Butler is the struggle of African Americans for racial equality, which in the case of Cecil Gaines, played by Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, and wife Gloria, multiple Emmy-winner and Oscar and Golden Globe-nominee Oprah Winfrey in an astonishing performance, sets off a war at home between a conformist father and an activist son (played by David Oyelowo).
"Cecil goes into the White House to work as a butler not so much because he’s a conformist," explains Daniels, "was as a way to better himself. His son, on the other hand doesn’t feel things are moving along fast enough. He sees a path to change, first passively, working with Martin Luther King Jr, marching for the right to vote. Then Dr. King is killed and he realizes that passive isn’t the way that will work. So he becomes more militant, going to Malcom X and the Black Panthers. Sadly, this causes a war within the family. Cecil is disapproving because he doesn’t see that working at the White House is working for the white establishment but rater in service to his country and for the Presidents of the United States."
Daniels is very quick to state that he didn’t set out to make a political film. "I wanted to put a perspective on what our race went through, even in my lifetime," he continues, "so that we could do things like vote. The story transcends race. It even transcends America – it’s universal. Things are converging to move us and to reshape humanity. We may not be quite there yet, but we’ve come far."
A sequence illustrating this comes during the Reagan presidency. Quite affluent, dapper, sometimes remote, and a great speaker, the President has special affection for Cecil. After decades of financial inequality for the minority staff of the White House, he makes changes to bring their salaries to par; then he and First Lady Nancy invite the Gaines to a state dinner – a first for a staff member – where they’re seated at the President’s table. Yet, Reagan, speaking in front of Cecil, is strident about opposing apartheid and putting pressure on South Africa to release Nelson Mandela.
Then, there’s the love story and family dynamics. Daniels, Whitaker, and Winfrey wanted to show that the story goes beyond black and white, the passing parade of presidents, and national events and tragedies. It had been a long time since Bill Cosby presented the notion of a loving black family on his long-running TV series.
"The Butler," observes the director, "isn’t just a history lesson. It’s also about a family, a father-son conflict. Cecil’s a lot like my dad. Through the trauma of his youth and working in such an esteemed place as the White House, he has a different understanding of white people, and how to communicate with them – like my dad had communicating with me. Actually, a lack of communication and understanding."
[For more on this, see the excerpt from Thursday’s feature below.]
The actors, in general, felt working with Daniels was a career-changing experience that has made them infinitely better actors. As Oyelowo put it, "Lee gets to know you from middle of the night three hour conversations, throws you inside out, then takes you places you didn’t know you could go. He doesn’t like to rehearse. You’ll do a take, and he’ll bring you in front of the monitor and go ‘Ugh! False! If you ever do anything like that again, you’ll never work in one of my movies!’ or he’ll embrace you and yell, ‘Genius!’ It can be intimidating, terrifying, and quite rewarding."
"I never want anything fake," emphasizes Daniel. "I’m always seeking the truth. Without a doubt, this is the hardest film I’ve directed, and the most important thing I’ve done, career-wise. I realize the way I view the world, and the way the average person views the world is different. I have to admit it was terrifying to take on a historical epic because you want to do it accurately. I hope people walk away with a sense of not forgetting what happened. We should remember that people, black and white, died for our country. They are the heroes who aren’t taught about in school. They’re the people who paved that long and rocky patch that brought Barack Obama into the presidency of the United States."
Daniels has nothing but high praise for his leads. Regarding Whitaker, he says, "Forest’s probably the most humble actor I’ve worked with. How many Oscar winners are willing to audition? He also did what I’d ask. That’s how you know you have an actor who’s confident – they do what you ask with no questions. It’s a rare gift. Forest brought an elegance, class, and vulnerability to Cecil that I don’t think anyone else could have managed. He had the ability to make Cecil change, grow, and see the light.
FOREST WHITAKER was incredibly flattered that he was approached for the role of Cecil Gaines. "I thought there could be an amazing movie in telling this story; however, it was also an extremely daunting task trying to figure out what the story would be. The film spanned so many presidencies and so much U.S. history, I had no idea how I going to narrow it down into a two hour film. The breakthrough came when Lee and I discussed the overview. He wanted to make the film the story of the civil rights movement.
"This would give the script a clear spine that I could center every era on," he adds. "I’m passionate about this chapter of our history. I’d written a script about Thurgood Marshall and his quest to end legalized segregation that to date hasn’t been made. So, I was determined to get a movie made that covered this important era.
Whitaker notes he was also attracted to the film because he and Winfrey had long talked of working together. They even discussed doing a revival of August Wilson’s Fences.
Known for his intense preparation for a role, worked with a "butler coach, so I could learn the formal art of service." He met with the son of Mr. Allen, those who worked at the White House with him, and read various memoirs from people who also worked at the White House or lived through these eras. He also felt it was important to keep his
emotions in check and "just think of Cecil as a man doing his job to support and advance his family."
"This is how Cecil Gaines and the Gaines family came to be. They are composite characters based on numerous White House employees and their families. I felt by combining the different stories I’d be able to create a more universal experience for the audience of what it meant to be a member of the White House staff during such tumultuous times. The Gaines family took on a life of its own in which I was hoping to dramatize the American experience during the civil rights movement through their eyes."
Whitaker states that these stories don’t get told more. "We’re a living history. Those who preceded us allowed us to carry on. So many younger people have no idea what we went through. Many social issues are still being addressed, and so it’s important to show the past in the hope it won’t happen again.
"However," he adds, "The Butler is also a story about familial love and the changes inside of a people and the country. I’ve been blessed to get to play a few roles that I was able to give my soul to. This one’s at the top of my list."
Whitaker sees Cecil as a complicated and conflicted man. "He’s proud of his job, but his older son Louis (Oyelowo) is embarrassed by it. He’s seen his father killed for speaking up to a white man, and so he doesn’t know anything different than to be subservient and to serve. It’s also quite a prestigious position."
Cecil and Louis are soon in constant conflict about progress for blacks in America. "In the film," points out Whitaker, "I get upset when Louis says Sidney Poitier is just a black man acting like a white. For Cecil, he’s an activist and trailblazer. The roles he played were impossible for black men to be in before he came along. The roads he paved are still being walked today. We also had blacks in powerful positions preceding President Obama. They shifted public opinion, even if it was just subconsciously. Destiny has its movement and things build up to a moment until a tipping point occurs. Others understand and accept."
Whitaker explained that he saw Cecil as an example of an individual contributing towards shifting larger opinions on race. "In the film, Kennedy’s tie and Johnson’s clip are the two gifts Cecil gets and cherishes. Both Presidents shifted policy for civil rights, then there was the tragedy of Kennedy’s assassination. Johnson was sometimes called a racist and was vilified for his position on Vietnam, but he did monumental things in getting civil rights laws passed."
Behind the scenes in making The Butler, certain craftpersons deserve praise: Oscar-nominated film editor Joe Klotz; the make-up team headed by Oscar-winning designer Matthew Mungle, Emmy-winning Douglas Noe, Debra Denson (for Whitaker), and Derrick Rutledge (Winfrey); and key hair stylists Candace Neal, Robert Stevenson, Paul Antony Morris (for Whitaker) and Debra Brown (Winfrey); and wig makers Victoria Wood and Natasche Ladek.
From Thursday’s feature on The Butler:
His journey to who he is was long and painful. It’s not for naught that The Butler’s sub-plot focuses on the turbulent and heart-breaking relationship between a father and son. "Father and son coming together after a tumultuous past is reminiscent of many dreams where I wished my father was alive so we could reunite."
Daniels candidly explained how he desperately wanted acceptance from his father, policeman William Beau Daniels, killed in 1975 during a robbery while off duty. "We were just starting to be friends," he says, swelling with tears. "He was considered a hero, but I knew a different man. He died the way he lived – tragically. There was little emotional understanding. "He bullied and called me names." It didn’t stop there. "He beat me. He could have gone to jail for what he did … He wanted me to be a man who’s strong and could attack the world. He thought I wouldn’t survive as a gay black man. I hope he’d be proud of me."