The following article written by Talia Buford an energy reporter for POLITICO Pro.
Lee Daniels hasn’t screened “The Butler” for the current occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but he did get to share a tub of popcorn with the Bushes when he showed them the movie a few months ago.
“Barbara Bush loved [my movie] ‘Precious,’ shockingly, and I couldn’t believe it,” Daniels said during a roundtable discussion at the National Association of Black Journalists’ annual convention. “I thought it was a setup or something. She sent me this lovely, really powerful email … and she said please come up and show the Butler to us in Maine.”
The movie, which opens in theaters Aug. 16, tells the story of Cecil Gaines, who served eight presidents as a White House butler from 1952 to 1986, and how he saw the civil rights movement from inside the walls at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
In an audience of about 600 people, Daniels said he sat next to Barbara Bush and former President George Bush as they saw the movie — and fielded some questions from them during the screening.
“And Barbara, she was crying,” Daniels said. “And George would say ‘Is that Oprah? Honey, is that Oprah?’ and Mrs. Bush would say, ‘Is that Oprah?’ Yes, Mrs. Bush, it’s Oprah. ‘It’s Oprah, honey. It’s Oprah.”
Oprah Winfrey plays Gloria Gaines, Eugene’s wife, in the movie. The film, set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, includes some scenes of lynched men hanging in the streets of North Carolina, and detailed re-creations of sit-ins at lunch counters and freedom rides, complete with burning crosses, Ku Klux Klan hoods and Molotov cocktails. The scenes had an impact on the Bushes, Daniels said.
“It was so powerful because they hung their heads — both of them hung their heads, he said. “And that was a gift for me knowing that they felt it. That they felt that they knew…that was a gift for me.”
It was divine order, Daniels said, that let the film, which features President Lyndon B. Johnson’s announcement of the Voting Rights Act, to be released just weeks after the Supreme Court weakened some of the protections provided by the landmark law.
“We had a great time shooting the scene with Lyndon Johnson,” Daniels said in an interview with POLITICO. “He did something incredible for the African-American — for us — with the Voting Rights bill. And then they took it away. My grandmother, if she wants to go in and she ain’t got her ID… she’s not going to vote. That’s just where it is right now.”
The film also allowed Daniels to delve into the complicated language of racism during the civil rights era. In the film, Johnson, played by Liev Schreiber, uses a racial slur a number of times — something that Daniels said was done on purpose. Johnson biographers have noted that the former President used the term to describe blacks.
“For me, it was very strategic,” Daniels told a group of reporters at NABJ. “When we did use it, it was used later on by Cuba [Gooding Jr., as the head butler] making fun of someone that did use it, Lyndon Johnson. It was sort of the joke that this guy uses it. So when he says it and talks about, it opens up — like Paula Deen — the concept of white people loving us and really loving us and feeling that it’s fine to use the word nigga. That’s how Johnson felt. He did something that was incredible for us. That’s trying to be taken away from us right now. And yet, he used that word just like ‘pass the grits.’ Racism is a very hard thing to explain, especially in the South.”
‘The Butler’ Cast
- Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines
- Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines
- Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Carter Wilson
- Terrence Howard as Howard
- David Oyelowo as Louis Gaines
- Vanessa Redgrave as Annabeth Westfall
- Mariah Carey as Hattie Pearl
- Alex Pettyfer as Thomas Westfall
- Yaya DaCosta as Carol Hammie
- Colman Domingo as Freddie Fallows
- Aml Ameen as Young Cecil
- Historical figures
- Robin Williams as President Dwight D. Eisenhower
- James Marsden as President John F. Kennedy
- Minka Kelly as First Lady Jackie Kennedy
- Liev Schreiber as President Lyndon B. Johnson
- John Cusack as President Richard Nixon
- Alan Rickman as President Ronald Reagan
- Jane Fonda as First Lady Nancy Reagan
- Orlando Eric Street as President Barack Obama
- Nelsan Ellis as Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Alex Manette as White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman
- Lenny Kravitz as James Holloway
- Jesse Williams as civil rights activist James Lawson