Based on the Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a historically expansive film that tells the life story of our country’s civil rights revolution through the eight presidents-long employment of a black butler in the White House. With the title butler played by Forest Whitaker, he is joined by a cast list that includes Oprah Winfrey playing his wife, David Oyelowo as his son, Robin Williams doing a Dwight D. Eisenhower impression, John Cusack waxing Richard Nixon, Jane Fonda embodying Nancy Reagan, and much more.
Title director Daniels gained notoriety for producing Monster’s Ball, which featured Halle Berry’s Oscar-winning performance. He received some of his own award kudos when he was nominated for “Best Director” for Precious Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, which also was nominated for “Best Picture,” and won actress Mo’Nique an Oscar for her performance. His followup to that film, The Paperboy, garnered the opposite type of response, with the AV Club designating it the worst film of 2012, after it played to a very disturbed audience at Cannes (reportedly).
Sitting down with Daniels one-on-one for ten minutes, we didn’t necessarily have a conventional conversation. It instead became an opportunity opened enthusiastically by Daniels to tell him what I thought of his work, a rare albeit intense opportunity that probably couldn’t have happened with a more fitting director, whose free-spirited nature is not just evident in his interview attitude, but his films as well. Of course, my friend Sergio from IndieWire warned me beforehand to not take all of his words with a grain of salt, but I’m not so sure that’s the case here.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler opens nationwide on August 16.
I saw your film yesterday. I wanted to ask [before I can ask a question about a missing scene that is shown in the trailer] …
What did you think?
This is my favorite of your efforts.
Uh oh, that means you didn’t like it.
No, I did like it. It has a benefit from being more pulled back, and you have that nice beginning which sets a nice tone …
So you’ve not been a fan of other films. Tell the truth!
You want me to tell the truth?
I saw ‘The Paperboy’ and everyone had said it was so weird, but I really liked your third act.
But you didn’t like the first two.
Didn’t hook me in as much. But what I do admire though, is …
Don’t sugar coat shit, yo! Bullets.
I wasn’t a big fan of ‘Precious.’ Parts of it seemed hammy … you seem to have a pride in getting to the seediness of things. And with ‘Paperboy’, you’re like, “Yeah, I’m going to have Nicole Kidman piss on Zac Efron,” which I admire.
Here’s the thing. I can never, I don’t release anything out unless I love it, man. Unless I fucking love it. And I know what I know. I know, or I feel like I know film, I feel like I know good theater, and I feel like everyone has an opinion, and I feel like sometimes you don’t make it for the critics, you make it for yourself. And so I am always fascinated to hear what people have to say about it.
I felt that the construction of the character Precious was another example of you throwing everything you can at an audience, though I respect that this may be a real person …
She is a real person, that really happened.
I’ve noticed that dramatic mentality in your other movies, but I haven’t seen your first one …
Oh god. Don’t. Please don’t! [Laughs]
I understand filmmaking is a job.
I am glad you like [Lee Daniels’ The Butler] the best. I will take that for what it is worth.
With this film, I certainly was struck by how you play with heavier elements that have not been featured in film for a long time, or have been sugar-coated, like with ’42’s’ recent outdated remake of ‘The Jackie Robinson Story’.
Did I play it safe?
I don’t think you played it safe because I think you still have ugly moments. I was surprised it was PG-13 because I thought it was generally more intense than that. I wasn’t a big fan of what you did with the presidents. I am not sure as to what kind of responses you got from that …
The thing is that, you got to make a movie. This movie, no studio would even touch it. So, I had to go out and get money, and sadly, there are only two African Americans who can green-light a film, neither of which are Forest Whitaker or Oprah. I refused to get Oprah’s money, because then I wouldn’t be able to direct her the way I wanted to. I think she probably would have. And the reason that we have all those names, not because I love all of those actors, and that they worked for me for free, and literally lost money on the movie, but because they saw the importance of the story. They green-lit the film. I wouldn’t have a movie if it weren’t for them, and the actors and the totality of their names. So, we tried to make them disappear as much as we could. The fact that this story was made is shocking, because African American stories like this are not supposed to be made. Every studio in Hollywood passed on this film. Yeah, man! They didn’t think that anybody wanted to see it. But actors know; good actors know. And I think we lost – I tried to lose these actors and these stars, as I do often in my movies. I try to make them disappear, as best I can. We judge the final product, but it’s getting to the green gate, that green-light, which terrified me.
Do you feel empowered by the certain brash choices you make in your films? In the film’s press notes you said you understand that you don’t see the world like everyone else. Does that excite you?
I don’t read articles about myself. But when I do read articles, I get terrified. But as I am in the moment here, I am living in my truth, and I think that is why actors are excited about working with me. To get those movie stars to work with me for free. There has to be something going on for them to want to work. But I do feel empowered by it. I think individuality is a rarity, and I love the fact that nobody has ever told – I don’t have studios breathing down my neck telling me what to do. I take full responsibility for everything on that screen. If you don’t like it, it’s me. I’m really proud of Oprah, I’m really proud of Forest, and I’m really proud of the story we’re telling. And it’s something that I think my kids will be proud of … I think my kids will be proud of.
Thanks for making a movie about sit-ins. I haven’t seen a film about that in a long time.
Have we ever?
Quick Questions with Lee Daniels
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
I am embarrassed to say, but I had Philadelphia scrapple. It’s a very specific meat, I was in Philadelphia this morning, and it’s fried pig fat. It is chopped, and it’s like pork rinds with more meat, but it is enough to make you want to slap your momma, it is so good. When I do go to Philadelphia, I treat myself to that.
If you could be somebody else for 24 hours?
I can’t tell you that … my son.
Age of first kiss?
Eight, with tongue.