Lee Daniels

Lee Daniels Talks Black History and ‘The Butler’

With Oscar-buzz surrounding his fourth film, the director discusses how he humanized a Black history lesson

Kelley L. Carter

by Kelley L. Carter, August 14, 2013

Lee Daniels

Lee Daniels serves up ‘The Butler’

Photo courtesy of INF

At times, racists call Black protestors ‘nigger.’ And there is a poignant scene where Blacks admonish the word, explaining that White men created it to further disenfranchise Blacks.

“I had a problem with the usage of the N word in Django [Unchained],” he says. “I have an issue with White writers using that word. But for me it was very strategic, and I wanted people to know where the word came from and when we did use it. It was used later on by Cuba [Gooding Jr.] making fun of someone that did use it, Lyndon Johnson. It was sort of a joke that this guy uses it.

“When he uses it, it opens up, almost like Paula Deen, the whole concept of White people loving us—really loving us—and at the same time feeling that it’s fine to use the word nigger. And that’s how Johnson felt. He did something really incredible for us that’s trying to be taken away from us right now. And yet, he used that word just like, you know, ‘pass the grits.’ Racism is a very interesting sort of… it’s hard to explain, especially in the South.”

And while he hasn’t screened the film for the Obama family just yet, at least one former president and First Lady have seen it: George and Barbara Bush.

“Barbara Bush loved Precious, shockingly. I couldn’t believe it. It was the weirdest thing. I thought it was a setup or something! And she invited me. And so she sent me this lovely, really powerful email. I went and showed the movie, it was the first time I’d showed the film to this many people. She said, ‘Please come up and show The Butler to us, in Maine,’ ” he says.

“So I go up to show it to Mrs. Barbara Bush and Mr. President Bush, Sr., and there was a sea of 600 blondes. I was the only Black person. It was crazy. And I said, ‘What am I doing here?’ And Barbara… she was crying. And George would say, ‘Is that Oprah?!’ Honey, is that Oprah?!’

“And Mrs. Bush would say, ‘Is that Oprah? Is that Oprah?’

“ ‘Yes, Mrs. Bush, it’s Oprah.’

“ ‘It’s Oprah, honey! It’s Oprah!’

“[Mrs. Bush] was wonderful. We shared popcorn at the end of it. She watched some of the atrocities that took place. It was so powerful because they—both of them hung their heads. And that was a gift for me, knowing that they felt that they knew. That was a gift for me.”

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