“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” offers a rare, Hollywood glimpse into African-American life during the height of the Civil Rights movement.
The film stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, a character based on former White House butler Eugene Allen, who worked under eight presidents at the White House from 1952-1986.
Throughout the movie, the quietly stoic Gaines, who represents a generation that values respect and manners above all else, butts heads with his son Louis, played by David Oyelowo. Louis believes African-American life will only change at the hands of total revolution, even if that causes unwelcome waves.
The cast is an unimaginable roster of award-winning actors, including Cuba Gooding Jr., John Cusack, Vanessa Redgrave, Robin Williams, Alan Rickman and Oprah Winfrey – who came off a 15-year acting hiatus to participate in the flick.
I recently sat down with director Lee Daniels, Cuba Gooding Jr., who plays White House waitstaff member Carter Wilson, and Yaya Alafia, who portrays Louis’ rebellious girlfriend Carol, to discuss the movie, difficulties of working with a large cast, and burping in front of Oprah:
Laura Hibbs: This film has an important message…
Lee Daniels: No! Not important. Oprah says not to say important. She used another word. It’s not important…Oh god, I can’t remember. But the word important scares people away.
Cuba Gooding Jr.: Timely?
Daniels: I think it’s… come on kids! What’s the word?
Gooding Jr.: I don’t know what the word is, but I’ll tell you right now… when people talk up a movie too much, people look at it darker. It’s very subjective to what people are going through in their life. But this movie will stand on its own – no matter what. If you’re coming at it negatively or positively, the film wins you over. Thank God. If it didn’t, if it was one of those gimmicky things, the secret would get out and it would fall off. I think this is a movie people will see once, twice, three times and still get something out of it.
Hibbs: Okay, so it isn’t an important movie, but it is certainly poignant given recent Trayvon Martin and Paula Deen headlines dominating the news.
Gooding Jr.: Poignant… maybe that’s the word?
Daniels: Yes, poignant! That’s it.
Yaya Alafia: I think there’s a certain complacently and numbness that pervades our society right now. It’s easy with a brown man in office to just be quiet. This movie reminds us of a time when people had a lot more passion, more outrage and felt more of a personal responsibility in justice. It’s not that the whole movie is about that, but all my scenes were, so that’s where my focus is. It’s poignant because it’s a reminder of our potential. Look at what we did before, we can do it again.
Daniels: And to remind us that we should never forget. It’s easy to forget. It’s easy to forget why I am stopped in stores and looked at, why I can’t get a taxi. Why is that? Watch the movie and see.
Gooding Jr.: Something I’ve always looked to do in my career is make statement movies that inform the history of African Americanism. I feel that this film makes definitive statements on the duality that the African-American man has to wear on his face. He has to be one way professionally and another way in reality, whether it be a street relationship or something more aggressive. We’ve been talking about researching old boxers. Way back, since the beginning of pugilism, there was such a veracity to the look of an African-American man, with his dark skin and his muscles — it was very aggressive. From Joe Lewis to Jack Johnson, these men won titles, but had to be very humble about it, apologetic about it. I think the film is the first to explore into the mindset of what we, as African-American men, have to deal with. We haven’t seen this on the screen in this scale, ever.
Hibbs: The script for “The Butler” was inspired by a Washington Post article about the life of Eugene Allen. How did you adapt his story for the film?
Daniels: Will Haygood wrote the story, and [writer/executive producer] Danny Strong took creative license to create a world based on that truth. And then I took it to another level, delving into Yaya’s character and Oprah’s character to bring them to life. I also nuanced it with Cuba’s character Carter White. I cannot watch a film if I don’t know that person.
Hibbs: The number of Oscar winners in the cast is impressive. Was it intimidating to work with such a talented group?
Daniels: We have six Oscar winners that are actors. You have to remember, there are other Oscar winners that are part of the crew, which is pretty amazing. Was I intimidated? No, no. Not at all.
Gooding Jr.: That’s a lie. What about Oprah?
Daniels: Okay yes, in the beginning for a second. But I think that Forrest set the tone for “Yes, sir.” A great actor is one that comes in with humility. All of the actors served the material, otherwise the scene was cut. If it wasn’t exactly as I wanted it — as Oprah says, “Every breath” — then it’s not in the film. There are people that are not in the film because they didn’t serve the material. So was the cast intimidating? No. What was intimidating was the bigness of the movie. There was so much going on, and I’m such a person of detail, that it was so much. Sadly, there are only two African Americans that can green light a film, so I needed the ensemble of all these people to be able to make the film. I think it’s a testament to where we are, not only with race in America, but race in Hollywood. It’s not that I didn’t want to work with these fabulous Oscar winners, it was exciting to work with them, but I had to find the right people who were governed by value. For every great actor we had, that meant more money. That’s the only reason I hired this nut Cuba right here.
Gooding Jr.: Oh, yeah, because I got so much money for doing this movie.
Hibbs: Yaya, you had to burp in front of Oprah in the film. Was that mortifying?
Alafia: I was just in character. I thought it was fun! We had fun with that scene. It was hard though, I had to find a balance.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” hits theaters Friday, August 16. Click here to order tickets through Fandango.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.