Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
August 13, 2013
Talking about his drama “Lee Daniels' The Butler,” in which Forest Whitaker plays a fictionalized version of a real butler who worked in the White House for more than three decades, the titular director says, “I did this movie because I needed to understand why it was that I get followed in stores.”
However, it must be noted that the movie opening Friday mentions a wide variety of key moments in the civil rights movement without providing detail on them--or looking at why race relations haven’t advanced farther amid all the other progress in the modern era. At the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the 53-year-old, Oscar-nominated filmmaker (“Precious”) talked about directing Oprah (who plays the butler’s wife), balancing history and entertainment and addressing current problems on screen.
What goes through your head as you direct probably the second most powerful woman in the world?
What do you think?
I haven’t done it.
[Laughs] Well, it’s probably what you think … It was intimidating. The beginning was very weird. Because though she had produced me for “Precious” and we were friends and we were looking for something to work [on] together, she’s a very powerful person. Strong. And so it was intimidating in the beginning, and then I realized, “Either I can direct her, or I can not direct her.”
Were there a few times early on where you said gently, “If you could do that again … please …”
No, I just kept saying, “It sucks. I don’t believe you. Do it again.”
You really said that?
Oh, yeah. Many times.
What did she say?
She was there to help. I couldn’t treat her any differently than I treated any other actor. It would have made me look weird in front of the other actors. I can’t not be mean.
If I tried to do that to her, she’d probably pay to have me killed. I’m not a director.
[Laughs] No, I’d say, “That sucks; let’s try that again.” Or “Give me half of that.” Or less. But what was great about her was that—because it was all about me; it wasn’t about her, it was about me and what I thought—once I got over that she was open. She was like, “What do you want me to do?” I think that’s a sign of a great artist, an actor, is when they say, “Yes, sir, what would you like?” They want to make you happy because they know ultimately this is my vision. It was magical. At night I would go, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m directing Oprah! [Laughs] What is going on in my life?!”
Harry Lennix recently questioned the treatment of reality in “The Butler.” What do you think the balance is when it comes to telling important stories that are a part of our history while at the same time acknowledging the way that things are today?
I don’t know who Harry Lennix is. So who is that?
Have you not heard about this?
I’ll quote him: “[Daniels] bastardizes history for a horrible end and purpose.” He’s an actor, by the way. He’s in “Man of Steel” just to name one. “So what if [Eugene Allen] was a servant in the White House? That’s incidental. I mean, God bless the man, but in an effort to make it seem somehow profound they bastardized the actual history of the man … Can we move to 2013? When our concerns are not about what happened to some servants with the help of some white people … let’s talk about today.”
Well, now I know who Harry Lennix is. [Laughs] Hmm. He’s an actor? Did he want to come see me for the movie or something and I wouldn’t see him?
I don’t believe so. I think he read the script and considered it and decided not to move forward.
Well, he couldn’t have been considered if I don’t know who he is. That’s first. But I think that I’ve touched the hearts of many, many butlers. Many, many, many civil rights leaders. I’ve touched the heart of my mom, who marched with Martin Luther King. And people that I respect. And I know that we’ve got a long way to go. And I did this movie because I needed to understand why it was that I get followed in stores … I go to Saks, I’m followed.
By employees that think you’re up to something?
Yeah! And I can’t get a taxi in New York City. Sometimes I have an assistant who’s white just so that I can get a taxi half the time.
I totally hear what you’re saying, but that’s a now problem.
I need to understand why. I need for my kids to understand why. This stuff is not taught in schools. My kids go to fancy schools on the upper east side of New York City, and they know more about the Holocaust than they do about the civil rights movement. We need to understand why there are race relations today and where it came from. I believe that American history is the civil rights movement. I think that I’m telling a story about a father and son. Who was right? Was it the father’s way that was right, who was serving his country in a way to getting by [through] passivity? By being passive so the white man could trust him? Was he right or was his son’s way, who was out there fighting in the streets? So for anybody to question what my understanding is of the civil rights movement—
But you mention those problems now. With all due respect, I think people will come out of this movie feeling relatively good. Obviously, the election of Obama is phenomenal, but like we said, there’s still such a long way to go.
I go overseas and [journalists] say, “How can there be a black president with all the racial tensions going on in America today?” And I can’t answer that question. Can you answer that question?
I can’t, and I have to mention that I don’t know Danny Strong, but I have to admit that I’m white and would never try to write a movie about the black experience. Was there any consideration of having a black writer for this movie?
Danny wrote the history part of it, and then I wrote the experience. Everyone in the family. I wrote the dialogue and everything, but Danny got credit for it as well he should. As is most cases the director comes in with a script and he puts his polish on it. He puts his pass on it. I put the nuance in it. The flavor in it. The truth in it as I see it as I witnessed it from my mom, as I witnessed it from my uncles and aunts.
If you were to make a movie about what you were talking about, that feeling of being followed in a store and racial issues today, what would that be?
I don’t need to. I think this says it all. I don’t need to.
This says it all about the racial issues today?
I think so, yeah. It says why it was, why it is, that we are where we are right now.
But our country has come so far. The gay rights issue, for example, has a long way to go also but fortunately people are coming around and making progress in a way.
(the publicist tries to cut us off, and Daniels addresses her) I’m sorry, this is fascinating. Just, one sec, yeah.
Addressing important elements of history and the reasons that people were bigoted before certainly informs where we come from, but I still wonder why some people haven’t moved past that?
Why who haven’t moved past it?
All the people who are following you in a store or are being bigoted against gays or whatever it may be. There’s knowing where we came from but also that present component of, “Why haven’t we finished with this, then?”
It’s deep, right? I don’t have the answer. I don’t have the answer to that. It’s disturbing. Why do you bring these questions up?! I was in a good mood!
I wish we had longer to talk!
What’d you think of the film?
As an American, this is important to me. I care about human rights and civil rights. I know that this movie will hit me differently than it will hit people who take it more personally. That said, I thought it was an interesting approach to include so much. I know we can’t make a five-hour movie, but it’s easy to want a lot of detail about these things, as opposed to incorporating so much briefly. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah. It’s hard. It’s really hard to cram all that in. To cram that history in and not make it a history lesson.
Where is that line between education where you’re naming a lot of things as opposed to naming maybe three things and going into extensive detail about them?
I think what we tried is we disappear through the family. It is ultimately a father and a son story. About the father and the son and his views and the father’s views. I think that that transcends race first and foremost. And then is the backdrop of the history and what’s happening in America. I took many, many moments out because I thought that at points it became a history lesson. I didn’t want to walk us through history. I don’t know whether I accomplished that. Where we just are with the family, Gloria’s alcohol struggles. Is she going to have this affair? What is the family going through? [Ed. Note: Spoiler alert!!!!] What their reaction is to the son dying. The relationship between the two brothers. The backdrop of history, I just tried to spinkle it in the back subliminally to the audience. I don’t know; I hope it works.
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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