Standing strong in one’s beliefs, especially during decades of political and racial turmoil, can be a difficult process for anyone, particularly for a person continuously contending with discrimination over their race. But strong conviction in defending their values and freedoms can help pave the way for radical change. This is certainly the case in the new biographical drama Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which chronicles the trials and tribulations of an African American butler in the White House during almost 30-years of service in the 20th century, as he supports ethnic equality.
Set against the tumultuous political backdrop of 20th century America, Lee Daniels’ The Butler tells the story of White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who serves during seven presidential administrations between 1957 and 1986. Inspired by Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article A Butler Well Served by This Election, about the real life of former butler Eugene Allen, the film begins in 1924 with a young Cecil living in the fiercely segregated South and facing the tyranny of the region’s prejudices. After years spent working in a hotel, Cecil is discovered by a White House employee, which leads to landing the opportunity of a lifetime: a job as a server at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
There, Cecil becomes a firsthand witness to history and the inner workings of the Oval Office as the civil rights movement unfolds. At the same time, he and his volatile but loving wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), must grapple with the rebellious spirit of their son Louis (David Oyelowo), whose tenacious hunger for activism and equal rights often puts him in dangerous situations – and at perpetual odds with his father. While Cecil remains fiercely committed to his duties at the White House and to providing for his family, his determination leads to increasing tensions between him and his anti-establishment son.
Several of the stars from the film, including actors Whitaker, Winfrey, Oyelowo, Mariah Carey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz and James Marsden, were joined by Daniels at a press conference at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria recently to talk about the historical biopic.
Check it out below!
Lee, how did you become involved in this project?
Lee Daniels: It came to me from the late Laura Ziskin, who produced Pretty Woman and the Spider-Man franchise. She optioned it for Sony, based on a Washington Post article (‘A Butler Well Served by This Election’) that Wil Haygood wrote. Danny Strong then wrote an incredible script that we developed.
Forrest, why did you become involved in the film?
Forrest Whittaker: The movie allowed me to deal with my own stance on the world. Everyone deserves a good quality of life. We moved into the civil rights movement because of that. I tried to strive for that, so I did research on the period, so I could make it an organic part of myself. I started to work with a butler coach, and the thinking they would have during that time.
I think the thing that helped me was that these artists are so talented. It was a great thing to walk on set and work with extraordinary actors in every segment of the piece, whether it be with Lenny and Cuba, and the presidents, like Liev. Everyone was so powerful, including the family, like Oprah and David. We were trying to find this intimacy, so that we can convey this desire to stay together as a family. My son was also trying to bring every one of the United States together as one at the same time.
Mariah, what brought you to your smaller, but important, role as Cecil’s mother?
Mariah Carey: Lee has been passionate about this project for so long. I don’t mean to speak for you Lee, but as a friend, he had incredible opportunities thrown at him after doing Precious. I think it took him a while to decide what to do after that, and I was so glad he chose this one.
I was watching the movie on the computer the other night, because this is like Fort Knox for me, but Oprah can get anything. (laughs) Finally watching it, and knowing what Lee’s going through with putting this movie together, I feel like this is your opus. It’s incredible to say that I’ve been a part of it.
Liev, can you talk about the historical prospect the film brought to this period?
Liev Schreiber: What’s so unique about The Butler is that it takes a compelling and intriguing tact on perspective, of being so close to the center of the political universe in the White House. This man has a unique perspective on this political universe, and it’s a very intimate and personal one. That’s the timeliness of that right now, given what’s going on in the world right now.
The film showcases the duality of faces African Americans were forced to put on throughout the 20th century-the face they wore for the white people, and the face they wore for themselves. Do you still think that duality is present in today’s society?
Oprah Winfrey: I don’t feel that at all. When I was 19, I interviewed Jesse Jackson as a young reporter in Nashville, Tennessee. He said to me then, “One of your gifts is to be able to be yourself on TV.”
I have made a career on my own authenticity. I don’t have one face that I present to the white world, and another to the black world. I talk to my dogs the same way I’m talking right now. It’s always been in sync to me. I say that with great pride and homage and honor to the people who were the generation before me.
I am a daughter of a maid, and my grandmother was a maid, and her mother was a maid, and her mother was a slave. I felt validated by the war that the Butler and his entire generation fought in their own way. Due to the courage, and conviction of a generation’s shoulders that we all stood on, I never had to do it.
Cuba Gooding, Jr.: There’s a very different face that I wear with my children in these very expensive schools that I have them in, than when I’m playing in organized hockey, for example. The film is indicative of the faces black people had to wear in this specific time.
Terrence Howard: As long as human beings are fragmented, and not solid and whole within themselves, and haven’t come to terms with themselves, like Oprah has, even white people have a face they show to white people. Everyone shows what they hope will gain them acceptance into the world.
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