Lee Daniels talks 'The Butler'

Posted: August 16, 2013

TO UNDERSTAND Lee Daniels, said Cuba Gooding Jr., you have to understand why, in the middle of shooting “The Butler,” he suddenly demanded a parrot.

“We’re all trying to get this scene right, and it’s not working, and all of a sudden Lee yells, ‘Get me a parrot!’ ” Gooding said.

“And amazingly enough, somebody gets a parrot. And we’re all tying to do our lines, and ‘squawk!’ every 10 seconds it’s ‘squawk!’ and it’s annoying, but all of a sudden everybody’s thinking of the parrot, and nobody’s thinking about how the scene is going,” said the actor who co-stars in the movie with Forest Whitaker (both men play White House butlers).

The story made Daniels laugh.

“What happens is the parrot throws everybody off, and then I get to the truth,” the director said.

Gooding confirmed this.

“That’s it. It adds a layer of honesty to what had been an ordinary scene,” said the actor, a Daniels veteran who worked with him on “Shadow Boxer.” The two were in Philadelphia last month for a “Butler” preview screening.

Daniels pretended to be embarrassed at the praise.

“I’m going to shoot Cuba some money right after this.”

“You mean,” Gooding said, “I’m finally going to get paid?”

The two were kidding, but there’s a serious subtext to it. “The Butler” is loosely based on the amazing true story of Eugene Allen, a White House butler who served eight presidents, from Truman to Reagan, and as such was eyewitness to federal-level development of the modern civil rights movement.

Daniels said that everyone who read a 2008 account of Allen’s career in the Washington Post knew immediately it would make a great movie, but Hollywood wouldn’t touch it.

“Here’s the thing: No studio wanted to do this movie, that’s the sad part. They didn’t think it would appeal to [white moviegoers],” said Daniels, who was under immense pressure to make the movie for peanuts.

Gooding said that independent filmmakers like Daniels often don’t mind small budgets, because they usually come with fewer creative strings attached.

“That can be freeing,” he said, “because it usually means you work with less oversight.”

“The Butler,” though, spans half a century and several presidents, and crisscrosses the continent.

“I couldn’t do it for $5 million, like I’m usually expected to deliver. I simply could not tell this story on that small of a scale. So we waged an epic battle to get the money we needed,” Daniels said. He eventually secured a reported $25 million for the movie.

Money that went to pay several Academy Award-winning actors. Oprah Winfrey is the butler’s wife. Jane Fonda plays Nancy Reagan, Robin Williams is Ike, and Vanessa Redgrave is the plantation matriarch who teaches Whitaker’s fictional character, named Cecil Gaines, how to be a butler.

The money enables the movie’s historic sweep. (Gaines’ character serves seven presidents, starting with Eisenhower.) Daniels mostly invented the character of Gaines’ son (David Oyelowo), who becomes a Freedom Rider, an aide to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a Black Panther.

The conflict between father and son is in many ways a conflict between African-American movie archetypes — the dutiful domestic, and the proud, militant man who disowns him.

But it also has universal resonance, Daniels believes.

“Isn’t that a universal story?” he asked. “We all know what that thing is — to have that relationship with a father, butting heads with the father, being embarrassed by that father. Everybody understands that story.”

Daniels changed the title character’s name to take some liberties with history that were necessary, he said, to invoke the great expanse of the civil- rights movement.

But actual history works its way in, including the way the White House occupants respected and honored Allen, with kindnesses and mementos. “Kennedy gave him the tie, LBJ gave him the clip, Nancy Reagan was the first to invite him to a state dinner,” Daniels said.

Also true: Eugene Allen lived just long enough to see Barack Obama inaugurated and was invited to the White House to meet the nation’s first African-American president.

“That is true. And it’s also true that his wife did not quite make it,” Daniels noted.

This is Daniels’ first experience with historical drama, and he’s developed a taste for it. His next project is likely a biography of Richard Pryor. He’s also working on a biography of Janis Joplin.

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