There was a moment when director Lee Daniels was working on his latest film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, when he couldn’t stop crying. It’s understandable. The story of his protagonist is the story of Black history in America. And the worst of it, as many of us have experienced or heard from our parents, is hard to relive. Even on a soundstage.
“The hardest scene to shoot was the scene on the bus,” Daniels recalls. “For me it’s a movie. This is not real. It’s just make-believe, it’s cut and action, and occasionally I’m moved for moments that the actors are delivering. But for the bus…
“We were on a bridge that Blacks actually hung from. That was a real place. We shot in a slave plantation. I heard voices and I thought I was going crazy. But I heard our people talking to me. We shot in a church where we were in the Underground Railroad where they hid slaves in. …” He trails off.
Then suddenly, the Oscar-nominated director picks it back up, remembering the scene where he had young actors portraying college-aged freedom riders on a bus trying to change the world.
“So we’re on a bus on a bridge, and I’m inside of the bus with the actors—because I like to be close to the actors when I’m working—and I yell ‘action!’ It’s hot on the bus, because the bus is old and it doesn’t have air conditioning. And as I yell ‘action,’ all of these white hoods come from out of the blue, and the crosses and the Nazis and the swastikas and everything. And we get intense, and everybody gets nervous. They start rocking the bus and shaking the bus and spitting on the bus, and I yell cut. And they keep going.
“They keep going ’cause they can’t hear me,” he continues, “because I’m in the bus. And then for a millisecond, just for a millisecond, I said, ‘Oh my God! I know what these kids went through.’ ”
The moment was profound for Daniels. He adds, “These kids were heroes. And on a much deeper level than I understood, this was no longer a movie to me; this was beyond a movie to me. And not just the Black kids, but the White kids too that came in. They had nothing to gain by us coming in, they came in to help us.
“And I thought to myself at that moment: I got two kids and I can take a bullet for them. I can die for my kids, I can say that. I can die for my kids. But I don’t know that I can take a bullet for a cause. I don’t know… For the right to vote, you know, for the right to sit at the table. No, I don’t want to sit with you. ’Cause I don’t need to sit with you. That was a, as Oprah says, a-ha moment for me.”
He’s hoping that many will feel the same way about his film, which opens this week and is already earning Oscar buzz. The film is based off of a Washington Post article by journalist Wil Haygood, and it tells the story of Eugene Allen, a butler who served eight White House presidents.
In the film, Forest Whitaker portrays the butler (his name is Cecil Gaines in the film), and Oprah Winfrey is his wife. The film contains plenty of moments like the scene Daniels described, and he’s hoping that the Black audience receives this.
“My family’s rough on me. Ain’t nobody worse than me on my family, and I have a 90-year-old uncle who is the first pediatric surgeon of color in America. When he saw this movie, I… I can’t explain to you what it was like. Because I no longer watch the film, I watch people watch the film. So I’m watching it through his eyes and it was the biggest gift, because he cried from the beginning to the end, he laughed from the beginning to the end. It’s his story,” Daniels says.
“And then my biggest critic is my son, who is 17, which is the biggest reason why I made the movie. I say white, he says black. I say night, he says day. And so he’s grown up with me in the theater and he’s been in my movies and helped me edit my movies and read scripts with me and it’s his life. And I thought that he was going to have a dig with me, but he told me that this was the greatest achievement that I’ve done, and I was like… wow. I think I’m OK.
“Because much of the film happens through the evolution of the Civil Rights Movement, the language can be savory and at times hard to hear. One former president uses the word ‘nigra.’ 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.”