What the ‘The Butler’ saw
Gail Choice | 8/8/2013, midnight
I hate to admit this, but several weeks ago I was taken by surprise when I saw a commercial trailer for the movie “The Butler,” now entitled “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” It seems to be an outstanding film starring Oscar winner Forest Whitaker and the one and only Oprah Winfrey.
For those who are unfamiliar with the film, “The Butler” is a true story based on the life of an African American man who was eyewitness to the most hair-raising events of the 20th century during his tenure as a White House butler through eight different presidencies from 1952 to 1986. In that period, some very dramatic changes took place in America that changed this country forever.
Not only is the film an incredible slice of history as told through the eyes of a Black man, but the cast is outstanding. Oscar winner Forest Whitaker stars in the title role as Cecil Gaines and Oprah Winfrey stars as his wife Gloria. And Oprah is creating a lot of buzz, so much so that the media coverage is said to have gone neither to director Daniels or Whitaker but to Winfrey.
Winfrey has been getting plenty of press as the media mogul is tackling her first substantial role in more than a decade. With more and more footage coming out as the film’s release date draws closer, it’s not difficult to see why people are so excited about seeing Winfrey’s charismatic nature on screen.
To prepare for the role, there was a specific action that Oprah wanted to focus on. “I, as you know, have problems crying. Everybody thinks that I’m a good crier, an easy crier,” she says. “I can cry if I’m in the moment and feeling emotion, but as an actress, that was one of my biggest fears.”
Lee Daniel's "The Butler"
Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” is set against the tumultuous political backdrop of 20th century America. Academy Award® nominated director Lee Daniels’ (“Precious”) epic drama tells the story of fictional White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who serves during seven presidential administrations between 1957 and 1986. The film is inspired by Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election” which chronicled the real life of former White House butler Eugene Allen. The film begins in 1926 and follows a young Cecil as he escapes the tyranny of the fiercely segregated South in search of a better life. Along his arduous journey to manhood Cecil learns invaluable skills that ultimately lead to an opportunity of a lifetime: a job as a butler at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. There, Cecil becomes a firsthand witness to history and the inner workings of the Oval Office as the civil rights movement unfolds. At home, his loving wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) raises their two sons, and the family benefits from a comfortable middle-class existence enabled by Cecil’s White House position. But Cecil’s commitment to his “First Family” fosters tensions at home, alienating Gloria and creating conflict with his anti-establishment son (David Oyelowo). Through the eyes and emotions of the Gaines family, Daniels’ film follows the changing tides of American politics and race relations; from the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, to the Freedom Riders and Black Panther movements, to the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, Cecil experiences the effects of these events as both an insider and a family man. With an incredible supporting cast that includes Yaya Alafia, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Elijah Kelley, Minka Kelly, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber and Robin Williams, Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” is a story about the resilience of one man, the growth of a nation, and the power of family.
Oprah’s acting coach, who has also coached such celebrities as Tom Cruise, helped Oprah learn to cry on cue. His method, however, remains a mystery. “She came into my house and … I’m not telling y’all the story, but in 20 minutes, I was like, ‘Oh, Lord,’” Oprah recalls.
The remaining cast is just as outstanding; Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Alan Rickman, Terrence Howard, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr., Vanessa Redgrave, John Cusack, Lenny Kavitz, Mariah Carey and David Oyelowo, just to name a few.
As you can see, there are a number of well-known actors starring as presidents and first ladies in the film. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Daniels said, ‘We had to finance it through bringing in names that meant something overseas. It’s a very sad testament that Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker can’t greenlight a film.”’
As a side note, the reason behind the title change is that the Weinstein Company lost their appeal to keep the title simply as “The Butler,” which was disputed by Warner Bros. due to a short film of theirs that already held that title. For a quick fix, the studio stuck director Daniels’ name in front of it, presumably to avoid total confusion with a complete title change so close to the release date. Which in the end will most assuredly work on the positive side for Daniels, giving him unprecedented recognition as a film director.
Catch more from the cast of “The Butler” on “Oprah’s Next Chapter,” airing Sunday, Aug. 11, at 9 p.m. ET on OWN. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, Aug. 16.