As a filmmaker, Lee Daniels is used to tackling big challenges. In 2009, Precious, his second effort as director, secured critical acclaim, box office success and six Oscar nominations (with star Mo’Nique going on to win Best Supporting Actress). Not bad for the unflinching tale of an illiterate, obese 16-year-old African American, raped by her father, bullied by her mother all the while struggling for independence in a world where the odds are stacked overwhelmingly against her.
The Butler, Daniels’ biggest and most ambitious film to date, ups the ante considerably. Charting the US civil rights movement from its inception through to the inauguration of Barack Obama, the film covers six decades and seven presidential administrations. Told through the eyes of Cecil, the White House butler (played with reliable brilliance by Forest Whitaker) who serves those seven presidents, it pulls no punches, opening with the image of lynched bodies swinging from the gallows and ending equally powerfully with an African American installed as leader of the free world.
Surely the responsibility of portraying such an important episode in US history, one that still weighs so heavily on the national psyche, gave Daniels some nerves before the cameras rolled? “No,” he tells me assuredly. “It’s the story of my family. When your mum experiences it, when your father experiences it, when your grandfather experiences it, when your great grandfather experiences it, when you’re 54-years-old and your earliest memory is drinking from a ‘coloured’ water fountain and sipping from the ‘white’ water fountain thinking it would be Sprite or ginger ale and you’ve sat in the back of the bus yourself and you’ve been called nigger it lives in me. It’s something that’s a part of me and I knew that I couldn’t tell that part of the story wrong.”
Daniels carried these memories with him into filming, as well as the art of carrying oneself with dignity in the face of hatred. “That’s what Forrest and I honed in on because you have a choice: you can be militant and fight back, or you can take a more powerful stand by being quiet and stoic and perceived to be less of a man by simply smiling and nodding when it happens.” I ask what choice he made back then. “I chose to be quiet.”
This is also the choice that Cecil, Whitaker’s character, takes in The Butler, despite being considered an Uncle Tom in his son Louis’s eyes. While Cecil acts subserviently as he seeks the trust of white America and the acquisition of the middle class dream, Louis looks to protest. First peacefully, then more forcefully as part of the movement to end segregation. The film suggests both approaches were equally valid, with one scene featuring Martin Luther King telling Louis that his father’s position is effecting change from within.
Although Daniels admits adopting Cecil’s approach in his youth, he actually went into the production with Louis’s headstrong attitude. “I thought I was going to tell this story and nobody in Hollywood wanted to do this movie, so I’m going to do this movie because this story needs to be told,” he explains. “So I really felt that I was Louis, doing this brave and courageous and important thing.”
As it turned out, when Daniels showed the film to his own son, he found they too shared the same generational differences as Cecil and Louis. “I asked him if he knew how hard it was to get the movie made and if he realised how important it was, and he said: ‘Dad, it’s good, but what’s important is to see myself or another black person as either Spiderman or Superman – then you’ve done something important.’ I’m thinking: ‘You ingrate, I’m sitting here and you want more?’”
With Precious a riposte to the right-wing stereotype of the welfare ‘taker’, I ask Daniels if he wants his art to challenge the views espoused by Fox News and Tea Party Republicans, but he refuses to be drawn into partisan politics. “I’ve shown this movie to President Bush senior and his wife and they broke down crying,” he reveals. “I showed it to Republicans, including the Speaker of the House [of Representatives, John Boehner] who was holding up our country and he broke down and cried. These people are human, and I think I’m here to explore the human condition, good and bad.”
Daniels is frustrated that despite The Butler being a critical and box office hit in the US, some media outlets focused on the dissatisfaction of Ronald Reagan’s son with his father’s depiction in the film. “They don’t talk about Nancy Reagan or her other two children loving the movie,” he counters. His response to grumblings from right-leaning commentators that the film does not accurately represent the life of Eugene Allen, the real-life White House butler who is its inspiration, is even more forthright. “Guess what: the atrocities were true, the lynchings were true, the burnings were true, the beatings were true, the shootings were true. The fact that I can’t get a taxi right now in New York City is true. The fact that my son can be singled out and shot in the head because he’s wearing a hood is true.”
In this last point Daniels is of course referring to the case of Trayvon Martin, just one of many signs the US still has a long way to go before it achieves truly equal rights for African-Americans. “I go around the world and people are confused how this can be with Obama being the president,” Daniels says, the sorrow evident in his voice. “So am I, because the reality is a sad one. All of my relatives and most of the people I grew up with are either in jail, working at McDonalds or on drugs. I am a rarity. Oprah Winfrey [Whitaker’s co-star in The Butler] is a rarity. It takes a lot to get out of the ghetto, because the system is against you.”
The Butler is in cinemas now.