With only four films to his name as director, Lee Daniels certainly knows how to make an impression on film.
While he made his directing debut with 2005’s Shadowboxer, which starred Helen Mirren, his breakthrough came with his second film, Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire. That film went on to earn six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for Daniels, with two wins (including Mo’Nique’s win in Best Supporting Actress).
He followed that up with last year’s controversial The Paperboy, which garnered a lot of interest for some scenes involving Zac Efron’s rain-soaked briefs and Nicole Kidman’s attempt to ease a jellyfish sting.
That brings us to his latest film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. In many ways, this is his most mainstream effort to date – it’s rated PG-13 instead of R, like his other films, and he has a massive cast led by Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey at his disposal.
The Butler is based on the story of Eugene Allen, who served as a butler in the White House over the course of eight presidential administrations that spanned a massive change in civil rights for the black community. For the film, the story focuses on the fictional Cecil Gaines (Whitaker) through seven administrations, from Eisenhower to Reagan. While the film initially comes from Cecil’s perspective working in the White House, it broadens out to eventually include the perspective of his son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who shifts over the years from movements led by Martin Luther King Jr. to the Black Panthers.
That aspect of The Butler – the relationships between fathers and sons – hit home for Daniels, and led to his involvement in the film.
“When I got the script after Precious, [my son] was 13 years old,” says Daniels. “My dad died when I was relatively young, so I have no experience on how to be a father after that point. I had no reference on fathering. And my dad was really strict, to the point of borderline abusive, and I didn’t understand that abuse, and I didn’t know that his father beat him, and his father before that beat him, and his father before him beat him, and his father was a slave. And it came from slavery. What I did know – and that’s what I learned from Precious – was that it had to stop, so I didn’t beat him.
“In this movie, it’s a love affair with the father and son, and it’s universal – it’s beyond color. That was the beauty of the story – the heartbeat is the father and son.”
Daniels was also quick to point out the lack of representation of family life on film that depicts African-American families.
“We never see as black people, we do not see this – we don’t see it. I take for granted. I mean, what movies are there, really, that address this? Claudine, maybe that film, but that was back in the 70s. It’s almost like we don’t have a family. The Huxtables, I guess – you know what I mean?
“So for me, the movie was not just about a history lesson, but rather really showing us something we’ve never seen before. They don’t exist like this. There are mothers and fathers that care for their sons that are African-American.”
When it came to shooting the film, Daniels points to a pair of scenes that were particularly difficult to shoot. In the first, where a group participates in a sit-in at a “whites only” counter at a restaurant, the hesitation shown on screen spread to the entire cast in shooting the sequence.
“It sort of transcended acting,” Daniels recalls. “A lot of the extras were couples – there were two couples, married, that were interracial. And so one extra was [saying], ‘Oh my God, he was doing some bad stuff to his wife.’ And so, to show you how far we’ve come, because everybody didn’t want to do what they were doing; nobody wanted to do what they were doing. And so it wasn’t just acting, it was reflecting on what it was that those kids were going through.
“The spit in Yaya [DeCosta]’s face, the first time we did it – of course I didn’t want to use real spit. So when we spit, it was water, it was just like, water. Then I had to stop and say, ‘We have to redo the scene, because it’s not going to work.’ So when she did it, the girl didn’t want to do it, but Yaya said ‘You gotta do it.’ So it happened; Yaya went outside and cried and threw up, got sick, and the girl went to the bathroom and started crying. It was a moment, it was a very sad moment.”
In another scene featuring a group of Freedom Riders and a confrontation with the KKK, Daniels felt personally endangered.
“We were on the bus shooting the bus scene, and it was on a bridge where black men were lynched. It was nighttime, it was, it was on a bus, it was hot – no air conditioning on the bus, because the bus was a period bus.
“What scared me most was that memory of black men being lynched on that bridge. And so, I yell ‘action,’ and as I’m yelling action, these KKK members are coming for the bus, the signs are coming, the nasty words, they’re shaking the bus, the swastikas, bats and everything. Everybody on the bus is nervous, very nervous.
“And then, I was a little nervous. I said ‘cut,’ but I’m in the bus; they can’t hear me outside, and so they keep going. I say ‘Cut!’ and then they can’t hear me, so I go to the window, and I am looking at them, yelling ‘Cut!’ And they don’t know I’m just wanting them to [stop].
“And I realize that there was nobody to yell ‘cut’ for these kids that were on that bus, and that those kids were heroes, in a way that I certainly can’t imagine being a hero. They were ready to die for what they believed in. I don’t know that I would. I would die for my kids, but I don’t know if I could die for their right to vote. It made me question what it was, what it really was ultimately all about.”
When asked about how the film parallels the struggles of the LGBT community, Daniels – who is openly gay – became contemplative.
“I’ve been bullied as a gay man where I couldn’t go to the bathroom because I was too afraid to go to the bathroom, because I was bullied – ‘sissy, sissy,’ ‘faggot, faggot’ – from the time that I was six in the second grade, through junior high school,” Daniels said. “So my mother wanted me away from that environment, so that I would escape the bullying that took place in the African-American community towards gay men. And then I went from ‘faggot, faggot, faggot’ to ‘n****r, n****r, n****r.’
“So I figure that’s made me the man that I am, that my kids look up to. And I think that part of me, that nuance, that gay man and that black man is on every frame of that screen, and [I hope] that my kids are very proud of that.”
Broadening out from his personal experience as a black gay man, Daniels turned to the issues he has with the larger community, and how he’s tackled that in previous films.
“In doing the movie Precious, we had to study AIDS and study people with HIV, because Precious had HIV. So I go into the gay men’s health clinic in New York City, to really research.
“So as I walk in there, I come into this room, and I’m expecting to see a bunch of white men that have AIDS, HIV. It’s a big room, bigger than this room. And I come into the room, and there’s a sea of women and children, all black. And I think, ‘Oh, I’m in the wrong room, I’m in the welfare office.’
“Well, I’m not in the welfare office, I am in the gay men’s health crisis center in New York City, in Chelsea, and there are nothing but African-American women that are in, with their kids – all of whom are infected with HIV. They have HIV; they have trumped gay men with HIV. And the reason that is the case is because we are dealing with [it] in the African-American community.”
He adds, “Black men have been castrated since slavery, so the concept of homosexuality or being homosexual is ‘embarrassment,’ and they have dealt with it in very insidious ways, the community. We have to be strong, black men. And in doing so, they have denied who they are, and in doing that, the church says, your parents say, your co-workers say, your neighbors say, your friends say that you can’t be out.
“And in doing that, they are infecting our women, they are infecting our people – black women with HIV because they’re afraid. And so I did that film, Precious, for all of those African-American men that are afraid to come out because of the fear. And I think it’s a very powerful thing to own one’s sexuality, and to own up to it.”
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is playing in theaters nationwide now. The film is rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking.