Forest Whitaker certainly isn’t yelling, but the temperature of his soft-spoken calm has increased a few degrees.
“If we have a few minutes, let’s get a [newspaper], and I want you to go through the films,” says the star of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” opening Friday. “And I want you to show me the ones that happened yesterday.”
The dispute rises from the question of whether films that connect to current issues should look backward or directly address modern times. The Oscar-winning actor (“The Last King of Scotland”) bristles at the notion that history would ever be taken for granted. This appears ironic for two reasons: One, because “Butler” includes short mentions of the Little Rock Nine and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and many more civil rights touchstones but will neither enlighten those familiar with these incidents/people or educate those who aren’t. And two, because the movie adapts the true story of Eugene Allen, who served more than three decades as a butler in the White House, into the fictionalized tale of butler Cecil Gaines, whose wife (Oprah Winfrey) is now an alcoholic and son serving in Vietnam is—spoiler alert—killed in action. On his dad’s birthday.
Seriously: Allen’s son came to the set of the movie in which the character based on him dies.
At the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Whitaker, 52, talked about working with Oprah, the importance of depicting history and the rarity of films that comment on today’s events.
In this film, your character’s mom is Mariah Carey and you’re married to Oprah. What would someone’s life hypothetically be like if they were in that position?
You mean the real people? Oh. [Laughs] I have no idea what their lives are like. They’re both unbelievably talented [and lead] really blessed lives. They’re very public figures, so I guess that’s the only thing I can probably safely say is there would probably be a loss of privacy. [Laughs]
What’s something that surprised you about working opposite Oprah?
I think I always thought she was a good actress, but I think she’s a great actress. She has such emotional depth.
That was surprising to you?
We had always wanted to work together before. We had talked about doing a play together actually. So I had great respect for her as an actress. It was just for me when I’m in a scene and when the scene is going so honestly and truly that I can get thrown, you know? I was a little thrown a couple of times. That was amazing because that doesn’t happen. I’ve been doing this for 37 years, and it doesn’t happen that often.
How often did you two finish a scene and she was like (in Oprah voice), “That take was AWESOME!”
Uh, no, never. She was totally in character, in the space pretty much. She was this character almost the whole time.
I found it interesting to see that Eugene Allen, the butler who inspired this film, lived his life very humbly. He declined book offers and speaking requests that were sent his way. Of course he’s not with us anymore, but what do you think he would think of this movie?
I hope he would like it. Hopefully he would feel that it captured the spirit of who he is and the experience that he went through. It’s a large life, and I don’t know what it must feel like for someone to watch themselves on screen.
Well, especially because there are a number of things that are adjusted from his life.
A few big ones. The death of Charlie because Charlie is not dead. He came to set in New Orleans and he gave me some of his thoughts.
Was that weird for him, that he dies in the movie but he’s watching it happen?
No, it’s clearly inspired by a true story. So he knew that. He felt like the script really depicted that experience. He came and he was moved by it and stuff. His mother wasn’t an alcoholic so that’s a big difference too in the fabric of the story.
Actor Harry Lennix was critical of the movie. To quote him, he says, “[Daniels] bastardizes history for a horrible end and purpose. So what if [Eugene Allen] was a servant in the White House? God bless the man, but in an effort to make it seem somehow profound they bastardized the actual history of the man … enough of this retrogressive poison. It’s horrible. Let’s talk about today.”
See, I’m confused by that because the movie is not about Eugene Allen. It’s a fictionalized story. It’s inspired by someone’s life--
But it probably wouldn’t exist if Eugene Allen didn’t exist.
I mean, I think not. But there are many stories that are inspired by true stories. It’s not a historical piece in the sense of that particular man’s life. There are historical moments in the film that are accurate. [Director Lee Daniels] created a fabric. He was trying to tell a story, a mythic tale. It’s like you choosing a person or a symbol to represent a period or a time. I have no problem with [Lennix] having those feelings; I’m just expressing to you that there’s a little dislogic in it.
But is there a danger in using a person to represent a time when it is tweaked from reality? We could be here all day discussing, when it comes to African-American stories, the question of looking back for these stories of servitude as opposed to, as Lennix commented, “Let’s talk about today.”
The movie is not a story about servitude in that respect. Talking about today is very important, but you have to understand that we don’t only live in the present moment. We live in the past and the future. It all exists as one thing. You cannot ignore the two. The fact that the African-American culture has lost certain parts of its historical past has caused certain issues with its community. The fact that they were enslaved and the losses that happened in the middle passage and then coming to this place and not being able to use their means. Not being able to live with their own religion. Not being able to do that is an issue so that historically to understand and have pride in yourself as a culture you must understand your past. So to say that is negating most cultures on the planet. It’s negating the [Judaic] culture who deals with their ancestors and lineage all the time. It’s negating all kinds of cultures around the world to say that the history of African-Americans isn’t important.
I don’t think anyone’s saying it’s not important.
I’m just responding because what you just stated to me states that. But maybe I should hear it again. You can hear me. I have no problem. I actually like to address these issues because I have very clear and strong opinions about them, and if we’re going to go in to this kind of discussion I just want it to be clear and accurate.
Well, something I was thinking about is I saw “Fruitvale Station,” which you produced, and that is a movie that I think when it ends, you realize how much more ground there is to cover when it comes to racial understanding. Whereas I wonder if movies like “The Butler,” ending on notes of hope--and the same with “The Help”--what do you feel like is the impact of that positive spin?
Let me ask you a question: Is Barack Obama the president of the United States?
He is, and that’s fantastic.
Let me ask you another question: Was that hopeful when it occurred?
OK, so what does the movie end on? That moment.
But that didn’t happen yesterday.
Of course not. Most films don’t. If we have a few minutes, let’s get a paper, and I want you to go through the films and I want you to show me the ones that happened yesterday. And I want you to tell me why you would put this on this project or this film and not put it on all these others.
Well, not many movies are commenting on the status of race relations.
I don’t have a problem. I’m saying that if you’re going to engage in this sort of dialogue, which is something I engage with quite often, I’d like you to make sure you’re really clear. You can write what you want, but if you’re honest about, if you listen to what I’m saying and you’re honest about the question that you ask …
What did I say that’s not honest?
Because you’re saying that we shouldn’t be able to explore the civil rights movement on film?
I did not say that.
What are you saying then? Because I would like to play back—
Of course we should—I’m Jewish; there are tons of Holocaust movies, and I’m not saying there are too many Holocaust movies. I’m saying when it comes to relations that are still in progress--
Are you saying there are no relations in the Judaic community?
There absolutely are.
I’m saying I think it’s an important thing to consider, and I don’t know how I feel. That’s why I wanted to talk to you--
And I’m just try to engage with you honestly.
--about how we should asses the way things are today. The reason I bring up the election of Obama and stuff like that is because I think it is shameful how far we still have to go when it comes to race relations, and I wonder if positive depictions of that relationship—
It explores throughout the film historically different moments of the civil rights movement and issues of people who are working in certain capacities in this case. In the case of my character, a butler in the White House. So it’s showing you those things that those individual heroes had to go through. It’s like not looking at apartheid and doing a film about Mandela would be not appropriate even though there’s issues of apartheid in South Africa. I know there are because I’ve worked there. I’ve done mediations there. So are you saying we shouldn’t be able to—do you understand—
I do, and I want us to understand each other. That is absolutely not what I’m saying. I’m saying the question of past and present is a fair thing to ask when it seems like we make a lot more movies about the past than we do about the current climate. It’s fair when something makes you feel pretty good—ultimately I think this is a movie that will make people feel relatively good about the place that we’re at in terms of race relations, and same with “The Help”--when people know that at this time in 2013 there are still a lot of things to be unhappy about.
An unbelievable amount of things. That’s why I do some of the work I do personally. That’s why I make some of the films, some of the documentaries that I do personally. Also, the youth and the people today, a lot of people don’t know their own history. It’s not taught in the schools. Let’s discuss the fact that some of this stuff isn’t particularly taught in our history books. And so is that the slight? Is that really the harmful thing? Should they be able to look and see some of the images and understand what their ancestors or what their parents even went through? I’m a young man but I’m in [my] 50s. I know what it’s like. I was there. There were a lot of things. Even though I was a little kid, I went on the yellow bus across town. I know what happened with the [black] panthers. I met them. They were on my corner. They were blowing up around the streets from me. I know. So to tell me that these kinds of stories aren’t important, I don’t know? It indicates so many lessons that we should take from history to move forward to tomorrow. Everything’s built on something else. I don’t know. I’m hoping you get what you want. It’s not a problem.
Of course. And I’m not at all saying these stories aren’t important. It’s just an interesting thing to think about when we look back and look forward.
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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