The scene is startling not only because it equates American history with the Holocaust, but also because, in all the numerous controversies which have surrounded the film, no one has mentioned it.
“I got very nervous writing that,” says Daniels, who was Oscar-nominated for directing Precious. “I was nervous about putting it in the story, but you can’t be nervous about the truth. My children are, needless to say, African-American and they go to a practically all-white school in the Upper West Side in New York City, a very prestigious school. And the fact of the matter is that they know more about the Diary of Anne Frank than they do about their own heritage, about the atrocities that have taken place here in America.”
The Butler was inspired by a Washington Post article about Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents, from 1952-86. But Whitaker’s butler is a composite, and the story of his family frames the shifting politics of a single lifetime.
“There are some powerful stories intertwining,” says Whitaker. “But what’s great about the film is that it’s about how those things affected our lives. At the heart of it was a story about holding a family together through hard times and troubles, and the prodigal son returning.”
The Butler’s prodigal, Cecil’s more radical son Louis, is played by British actor David Oyelowo, who also appeared in that other cinematic exploration of racial servitude, The Help. “For me,” says Oyelowo, “The Butler takes the conversation forward. The Help is looking at the lives of the domestic servants through the eyes of the white characters. The Butler goes deeper, because you not only see it through the eyes of a black family, but through the eyes of a black protagonist. This is his story and you see the world through his eyes. That doesn’t happen often.”
The film has been a huge hit, taking $115m so far at the US box office, despite some negative publicity. Much of the controversy concerns the divergence from the facts of the Eugene Allen’s life (there was no rape, no radical son, but he was invited to a state dinner by Nancy Reagan). The (sympathetic) portrayal of Nancy by Jane Fonda has drawn flak, from a Veterans’ group unable to forgive “Hanoi Jane” for her anti-Vietnam campaign. Reagan’s son Michael has also criticised the (largely benign) depiction of his father. “If you knew my father, you’d know he was the last person on Earth you would call a racist,” he wrote.
“Nancy Reagan was very excited to have Jane play the role,” counters Daniels. “She’s seen the movie. Her son and her daughter loved it; all but one, who is a very staunch Republican – that’s the one that always has something to complain about.” President Obama was reportedly moved to tears by the movie, though his endorsement is hardly surprising as the drama concludes with his 2008 election victory.
Ultimately, The Butler is a Zelig-like tale of struggle in which the metaphor wears a tuxe
do. The butler, we learn, must learn to live with two faces, one for his family and friends, and another for public life. He must be present, but unseen.
“You see Cecil with his friends, you see him in a jocular mood, you see him enjoying food with his family,” says Oyelewo. “Then suddenly there’s the public face and the public demeanour – the wallflower. And my character is someone who has lost patience with that way of being, he wants to be true in private and true in public. That’s the clash: toeing the line, versus ‘we’ve had enough’.”
“I remember when Obama became president, I didn’t feel the need to have two faces,” says Daniels. “For so long there was the face that we had for business, and our personal face that we have for family; and for African-Americans to survive in the world there needed to be both. It took me a long time to embrace the fact that I even had two faces. But when Obama became president I became one.”
Daniels was a hands-on director, ordering Winfrey to seek coaching to refresh her acting skills, and urging Whitaker to do less, and trust that his emotions would be transmitted. “It was really remarkable working with Forest,” says James Marsden (who plays JFK), “how measured and calm and specific he was. His nature is very different to Lee’s.”
The director, meanwhile, praises the “zen-like angelic quality” Whitaker brought to the set. “In preparation I had to revisit many of the atrocities that my mother and my grandmother endured,” says Daniels. “I’m 54, so I remember drinking from a ‘colored’ water fountain. You choose to block things out to get on in the world. But when I was doing the research, it was three months of watching things – the beatings, the murders. I came to set the first day angry, Forest saw that anger and he said: ‘Lee, you can’t carry that energy with you, because the minute that you see racism, it becomes real, and if its real, then it eats you alive. You have to rise above it, and act as if it’s not there, even if it’s in your face.’”
“My character comes from a period where, if you didn’t hide your emotions, it could cost you your life,” says Whitaker. “At that time, it meant survival. For myself, I’ve stayed pretty true to what I feel, to what I am, but we’ve had a lot of incidents in the country … Not that long ago, even, near where I was born in Jasper, Texas, someone dragged this guy through the streets. [James Byrd Jr. was murdered by white supremacists in 1998]. Different things go on as we try to evolve as a nation.”
Certainly, the subject matter was familiar to Whitaker (52), who lived in the South Los Angeles area in the 1960s and early 1970s, and was due to be bussed to a school in Compton until his parents told officials that he lived with a cousin, meaning he was sent to a largely-white school. He also has distinct memories of the radical Black Panther movement operating in his neighbourhood.
“I remember not understanding when Dr King was assassinated, not being at school. And the Black Panther party was around the corner from my house. When I would go to school, I saw them every day. They knew my name, they picked me up, invited me to go to a breakfast programme. I also saw when their building was blown up. I walked right by, I looked for them, ’cause these guys were always talking to me.
“The town I was born in (Longview, Texas), in which I spent all my summers with my grandfather, was always divided. There was this side of the river, or the other side of the river. That was the dividing line between race and culture. That happened throughout the movement of my youth. It’s shifting now, but there are remnants of it.”
If the triumphalism of the film’s conclusion seems a little over-stated in the light of the compromises of the Obama’s administration, Whitaker remains optimistic.
“His election brought a lot of hope to people, and it still does. Dr King talked about it. He said a promissory note had been was given – of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is what was in the constitution. This promissory note is what we’ve been working towards.
“As a nation, we’re very young, and the amount of movement that’s occurred in this short span of time is unbelievable.
“Barack is one of those steps that’s moving us there. And it’s a great step. We’ve moved a long way – but we’re still trying to reach a true definition of what we said we were going to be. So in that way, we haven’t become what we’ve promised ourselves.”