There’s a moment near the end of The Butler (officially known as Lee Daniels’ The Butler) in which two of the film’s central characters, Cecil Gaines and his wife Gloria, are looking at a picture of their granddaughter. Gloria asks incredulously how her son could “name that child Shaquanda. . . . What kind of name is that?” At the screening I attended this caused the entire audience to burst into laughter. The moment would surely have been amusing if any actress had delivered the line, but in in this case the actress happens to be Oprah. And while she is in much of the film, it’s frequently possible to forget that you are watching the Oprah Winfrey. Given that she hasn’t appeared in a live action feature film in 15 years, the fact that she is able to have such an effect on the audience proves she still has her acting chops, and may remind some why she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress more than two decades ago.
For Oprah’s return to the screen, we can thank director Lee Daniels (Precious), who pursued her aggressively for the part, “I bullied her, I begged her, I cried, I screamed, stalked,” Daniels says, describing his approach. She had originally committed to do the film, but then when her cable network OWN ran into challenges, she had to step out, but she ultimately came through to shoot The Butler last year. The movie, which opens August 16, is based on the real story of Eugene Allen (in the film his name is Cecil Gaines and he is portrayed by Forest Whitaker), who served as a White House butler from 1952 to 1986, a tumultuous period of race relations in America. The film follows Gaines from his childhood on a Georgia cotton farm through his relationships with Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan. Over the course of the film, we see Gaines standing in the Oval Office as Eisenhower debates sending the National Guard into Little Rock, Arkansas, to allow African-American students to walk in the door of their high school and as President Reagan argues with members of Congress about support for South Africa during apartheid.
Parallel to Cecil Gaines’s story is the story of his son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who joins the civil rights movement when he goes away to college, participates in the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-In in 1960 and, in the sixties, segues into the black power movement. While Cecil has been taught not to speak out or talk about politics, Louis sees no other choice but to speak out loud and to protest. The film juxtaposes the refined state dinners, august halls, and polished silver of the White House with the gritty reality of the segregated South and the struggle for civil rights. To highlight the tension between the two worlds, Daniels filmed the scenes in the White House and the scenes of Louis and the Gaines family with different tones, color palettes, cameras, and lenses.
With such a sweeping story and a large ensemble to cast, Daniels, who prefers to work with actors he knows and has already worked with, did something different for The Butler. “I had a choice of going with unknown or known actors. I decided to roll the dice and go with knowns. Partially because I liked the idea of the audience getting to unknow the actors, people think they know, but we could change those perceptions of who they are,” says Daniels. Thus he cast Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan (a choice that was approved by Nancy Reagan) are all quite memorable and quite against type. Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Vanessa Redgrave also appear in the film.
“The director in me enjoys getting to make you unknown them and force you into making you believe they are these new people. With Oprah, it was an even bigger risk of getting her to strip down to be someone else.” Daniels says. But after his dogged pursuit of Oprah had paid off, Daniels realized he had a new challenge: “I went ‘Oh my god! I got her and now what?’ She came in as OPRAAAAH,” he says imitating her signature excited intonation, “And I was intimidated. Then I got over my own fear of directing her. I stripped her down. She was vulnerable, she was fragile, she was nervous. She came without an entourage. She wanted to be one of the guys.” To get to that place, Daniels spent a great deal of time talking with her about everything from food to sex and from literature to personal insecurities. Peeling back layers to get both director and actor to a raw place where they could become unknowns like the Gaineses were in their own time.
Daniels says this process also fosters a collaborative environment which, among other things, brought Oprah to question some things in the script. When it came to a scene in which Gloria Gaines was supposed to be in panties and bra, “She said ‘No’ and I said ‘That doesn’t work for me and here’s why. This is what you signed up for.’ But then she explained why the character wouldn’t be doing that, and she was right,” Daniels recalls, “What makes me me, is that I don’t claim to know everything. My answer is not the right answer every time. I find the truth in the moment, and I seize the truth and shoot the truth when I can get it.”
This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, and despite the thousands of books, feature films, documentaries, and articles that have been written on the subject, Daniels feels that there has been a big hole in that story that The Butler can begin to fill, “It’s told through a black lens,” he says, “We haven’t had the opportunity as African-Americans to tell our own story.” While African-American filmmakers, actors, and stories are more present in Hollywood today than they have ever been, with 2009’s Precious, Daniels became just the second African-American in history to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar, and the first African-American director to direct a film nominated for Best Picture. “When we tell our own stories they ring truer, because it’s our experience,” Daniels notes. And this weekend, perhaps with some help from Oprah, that experience is about to be accessible to people of all races and ages, across America.