There might have been more power—and beauty—in a more understated approach all around.
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" is inspired by the real-life story of a black man who worked in the White House for decades, serving eight Presidents from Truman to Reagan. Born in the Jim Crow-era South of lynchings and segregation, Eugene Allen lived long enough to cast a vote for Barack Obama. Forest Whitaker plays the fictionalized Cecil, the butler, with Oprah Winfrey as his wife, Gloria, and David Oyelowo as their son, Louis, who becomes a leader in the Civil Rights movement. The cast also includes Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as Ronald and Nancy Reagan, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, and Vanessa Redgrave as a plantation owner.
How do you evoke the important details of such a large swath of history without getting lost?
We don't focus on history. History is the backdrop. The focus is the family. I have to tell what I know. I've never been in the White House. So that was really a specific choice to focus on the father and son love story and make the rest of it a backdrop, the White House and the Civil Rights movement. Otherwise it is not a story; it's a history lesson. Danny Strong wrote an incredible script. He knows so much about history. I had to do some research on the White House, but the sit-ins, the bus rides, the different drinking fountains, those were things my family and I experienced. I once drank from a "whites only" fountain and got slapped by my dad. I thought there would be Sprite coming out of there! My experience is that experience, either from personal experience or from my mom or my dad, or my aunts and uncles and grandparents.
How did you talk with Forest Whitaker, who plays the title character, about the way his character would show his age over the course of the film?
He is one of if not the premier actors of our generation. He brings a load of stuff that he's studied and thought about. For me, it was really about being a puppeteer, guiding him, telling him maybe a little too much here or there but it's all him. I just told him when to bring it down or bring it up, like adjusting the volume. He comes at you like a cannon, but with humility.
What do you want people to talk about on the way home from this film?
How they could laugh and cry at the same time. How I didn't take it too seriously. In the research I did with the slaves and the Civil Rights movement, they didn't take it too seriously. If they didn't laugh, they got terrified. So they had to laugh through the tears. I hope people will say, "Lee Daniels did not take it too seriously, and by that he told the truth."
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