It was by sheer chance that I heard Lee Daniels, Director of the long-awaited The Butler (forced by Hollywood to be re-titled “Lee Daniels’ – The Butler”) would be the speaker at the Lincoln Center’s Film Society Summer Talk.
The Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center was packed to the rafters on Thursday August 15, with a mixed crowd in terms of ages, sexes and races; all treated to Lee Daniels in relaxed form; no doubt mellowed by the glass or two of wine imbibed before his appearance. The one thing I took away from seeing the man up close and personal was the brutality of his honesty that was also somehow refreshing and disarming.
The event was moderated by Eugene Hernandez, of the Film Society, who asked interesting questions and moved things along apace. However, the best questions came from the audience, including this writer’s question of ‘what it felt like knowing that this movie could well serve as a primer for the civil rights movement from a black man’s perspective, but yet in real-time, we seem to be moving backwards from the gains made in the civil rights heyday, as evidenced by the repealing of key sections of the Voters Rights Act and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, self-confessed murderer’. His response was long-winded, but in summary he related that when working on a project, he is totally immersed in that project and in fact had no idea of the events concerning Trayvon Martin or the Supreme Court’s recent ruling. It makes the opening line in the movie even more poignant as the voice over comments that a white man can kill a black man at any time. In hindsight, he felt his choice of that opening was divine inspiration.
Daniels, when asked by an audience member how to overcome the obstacles of finding funding for works by minority artists, said that he is aware that racism is insidious and pervasive in society, perhaps even more so in Hollywood; but he never acknowledged it, he never speaks of it, feeling that giving voice to this poison stunts his growth and demoralizes and demolishes his spirit. He said this ethos led to his ‘can do’ spirit and this is what has perhaps also driven his success in amassing amazing cast members, not just for this project, but for others like Monster’s Ball, The Paperboy and Precious.
Lee Daniels’ – The Butler, is inspired by the Washington Post’s article on the life of Eugene Allen the African American White House butler who served eight presidents during his 34 years on the job. Allen died in 2010; although he may not have served President Obama, but he was present at the swearing in ceremony of America’s first black President.
It is noteworthy to mention here that this was also the last project from producer Laura Ziskin who succumbed to breast cancer in 2011 before the movie was completed. Daniels became very emotional as he related the sacrifice she made, leaving her work on Spiderman the Movie to breathe life into his project, especially the struggle to raise scarce funds, but expressed heartfelt gratitude for her hard work and related their excitement at the realization that the project would be partially financed by a black woman who had recently won the lotto and wanted to invest in the film! The film has a record 41 producers and is distributed in the US by the Weinstein Company.
Daniels had always conceptualized the movie as a love story between father and son, a theme which resonated with him, as he sought to resolve his own tumultuous relationship with his father. There were gasps from the audience as Daniels powerful words bounced off the walls and ceiling – ‘my father beat me, his father beat him, his father’s father beat him and his father’s father’s father’s father …….was a slave!!!!’ In addition, he spoke again about the dissonance between himself and his then 13 year old son. Many parents could empathize with his statement: “I say white, he says black, I say no, he says yes, I say go to bed and he says no”.
If nothing else comes out of this movie, Daniels is at peace, he has forgiven his father as he understands the generational issues that led to his own childhood physical abuse and has a better understanding of the workings of teenagers, now in awe of his two children who he says “are much smarter than me”.
Listening to the insights of Lee Daniels and his interaction with the audience members, but not had the benefit of seeing the film, one comes away with the distinct feeling that this movie will not only break box office records and, garner several Oscar nominations for its cast, but more importantly will force the continuation of the discussions on race, class and relationships. Above all, this movie is not just a race movie, nor a father/son love story, not just a Forrest Gump synopsis of history, it is a movie that reflects America’s progress steered by the hands of successive iconic presidents.
Starring Forest Whitaker in the title role and featuring Ophrah Winfrey who makes her return to celluloid after her long hiatus, Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Fonda, Mariah Carey, Robin Williams, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, John Cusack, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, Live Schreiber, Alan Rickman, Orlando Eric Street, Nelsan Ellis, Alex Manette, Jesse Williams, Yaya DaCosta (former ANTM contestant) and Aml Ameen with what has been described as standout performances from David Oyelowo who plays the militant son Louis Gaines.