Finally, it’s here. After months of buzz, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” opens Friday nationwide.
The film, based loosely on the life of a real White House butler who served during eight Administrations, stars an astounding list of A-listers led by Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey. The movie was inspired by a Washington Post article written by Wil Haygood about the late Eugene Allen, who served as a White House butler and maitre d’.
In addition to the supporting cast that includes David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, singer Lenny Kravitz and model/actress Yaya DeCosta, “The Butler” also features a lengthy list of A-listers making cameo appearances including Vanessa Redgrave, Mariah Carey, Jane Fonda (as Nancy Reagan), John Cusack (as President Nixon), James Marsden (President Kennedy) and Robin Williams (President Eisenhower). But the real news about “The Butler” is that the film, written by Danny Strong (“Game Change”) is about more than its all-star cast.
“The Butler” stars Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, whose service to seven Presidents serves as a backdrop to some of the biggest moments in American history and the impact history has on Gaines, his wife —played by Winfrey, and their sons and neighbors. Despite the setting, “The Butler” tells history form Gaines’ point of view, emphasizing his life and journey through social and personal upheaval, the most intense being his ongoing conflict with his oldest son who travels his own turbulent journey from Freedom Rider to a Black Panther.
“This is a love story and a story about a father and son,” said Daniels, during a post-screening interview session hosted earlier this month by the National Association of Black Journalists’ national convention in Orlando. “The White House just happened to be in the background of the story about a father and son. I think the father-son story is universal and that’s’ what really attracted me to the story.”
Whitaker said it was the focus on the butler’s real life drama that attracted him to the project. “This was a story dealing with the love between a man and his family. It had intimacy. It allowed us to see the love of this black family in a way that was very special,” he said.
Whitaker said he also was taken with the different styles of struggle waged by father and son. Though the father, to a younger generation, appeared passive and subservient, the audience sees him waging his own, quiet protest, repeatedly risking his job to ask that the black help receive the same pay as their white counterparts at the White House. The son, meanwhile, insists that he wants more than what his parents have achieved.
“I knew it was going to be very special,” Whitaker said, adding, “And I always wanted to work with Oprah, so I just accepted the blessings and the opportunity.”
While there are a number of peeks at well-known historic moments and White House gossip and legends (LBJ’s bowel issues, for example), a large part of the film is devoted to the realities of the Civil Rights movement as seen through the eyes of Louis, Cecil’s oldest son (played by Oyelowo) who goes from Freedom Rider and lunch counter sit in protester to a Black Panther. He ultimately runs for Congress and protests South African apartheid.
Daniels said the searing realities captured in some of the 1960s protest scenes were an intense experience for the cast as they endured some of what their real life counterparts had to endure.”We were on a bus that was not air conditioned, that traveled over a bridge where lynchings took place. I yell action and I look up and see all these Klansmen and swastikas coming, the cross is burning,” Daniels said, describing the filming of a scene depicting the Freedom Riders, volunteers who rode through the Jim Crow south to rally support for the Civil Rights movement.
“Everybody in the bus is getting scared. They’re (the actors portraying Klansmen) are shaking the bus. They’re hurling obscenities and everything,” Daniels said. “I think that in that moment I knew what those kids had gone through (in real life) because there was nobody to yell ‘cut’ for them. I knew that they were heroes on the most profound level. They were willing to die. I don’t know that I could be on that bus.”
Daniels said he hopes “The Butler” serves as a tribute and reminder of those who endured the intense struggles for equality—whether working behind the scenes like the butler or in the heat of protests and marches like his son. “This is a way for me to speak to (a younger generation) about this,” he said. “I think this will rip off the scab of an ugly sore that’s affecting all of America.”
—Karyn D. Collins