“Motherf*cker,” said Lee Daniels as he lay, completely horizontal, on a sofa in his room in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria. “That’s how I want to start. What the f*ck?”
Daniels, who rose to prominence in 2009 with his film Precious, was promoting his latest film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a film adapted from the life story of Eugene Allen, a Black man who served eight presidents and lived to see the election of Barack Obama. (In the film, he’s called Cecil Gaines and played by Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker.) But though the film ends in November 2008 and on a sunny and optimistic note, Daniels observed that recent developments showed that America has a long way to go on race issues. “They trick you,” Daniels said. “They put Obama in office with all this messiness underneath.”
“When we made this film, Trayvon Martin hadn’t happened,” said Daniels. He also noted that Lyndon Johnson’s passage of the Voting Rights Act was a major set piece in the film — and that now, that legislation has been overturned. “It was snatched! They’re saying now, that if my grandmother don’t show ID at the polls, she can’t…” He trailed off. “I can’t believe I’m having this conversation.”
“In 2013,” he said, comparing the killing of Trayvon Martin to an early Butler scene in which Cecil’s father is killed, “any White man can kill a Black man and get away with it. That’s crazy!”
The Butler, as it’s known (the Lee Daniels credit in the title is the result of a bizarre legal fight), depicts Cecil’s personal and professional life; at work, he’s a confidant and silent influence upon the President, while at home, his marriage suffers and one of his two sons becomes involved in militant activism. This is a broad and often messy movie — presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan are portrayed by famous actors with varying degrees of accuracy, and the butler’s sway over them and over U.S. policy seems at time overdrawn. And yet its depiction of a father-son relationship between a service-industry employee and a Black Panther, as well as the participation of many of the film industry’s most venerated Black performers, gets at a question at least as old as W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington’s writing: Is it better to assimilate and attempt to change the system from within, or to rebel?