LEADING COUPLE: Winfrey and Whitaker play married pair Gloria and Cecil Gaines in The Butler
FOR ME to agree to do an interview at 10.30pm at night, it has to be a pretty big deal.
And by the time my interviewee ended our 30-minute chat by saying: “It was a lovely interview – really lovely talking to you on the phone,” I knew I’d made the right decision sacrificing my beauty sleep.
Interestingly, talking to Lee Daniels is a bit like watching one of his movies. Thanks to his honesty and openness, the celebrated US director evokes an array of emotions – and can become quite passionate himself. That is, if the discussion takes the right direction.
“Man, this conversation is like f*****g therapy,” Daniels laughed, at one point during the chat. “Only certain people bring that out of me!”
Gearing up for the UK release of his new movie The Butler, Daniels proved to be as frank and heartfelt as his latest cinematic offering.
Starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, the film follows the life of White House butler Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), who escapes his childhood working on the cotton fields on a plantation in Georgia, to learn the art of serving – before landing himself a job as a butler in America’s most famous residence.
Inspired by the story of real life White House butler Eugene Allen, who served under eight presidents between the 1950s and 1980s, The Butler explores race relations in America, and the birth of the Civil Rights movement, touching upon the lynchings, beatings and segregation faced by black people in 1920s America and beyond.
But in among the exploration of black oppression is the tale of Gaines and his eldest son Louis (fantastically portrayed by British actor David Oyelowo). As Louis becomes awakened to black power movements and begins to fight against racism, he comes to resent his father’s life of servitude in the White House – the very house in which many decisions were made that only served to prolong racial oppression and segregation.
For Daniels, who is famed for his films Precious, Monster’s Ball and The Paperboy, it was The Butler’s father and son tale that initially drew him to the project.
“I didn’t originally look at it as an important Civil Rights movie,” he says of the tale that was written by film and television writer Danny Strong.
“What I really loved about the film was the father and son love story. At its core, I felt that story transcended race and culture and it struck my heart.”
Having previously revealed that his own father had beaten him as a child when he discovered his young son was gay, Daniels explains that it was personal experience that allowed him to feel connected to The Butler.
“I didn’t get along with my father and he died before I was able to apologise or he was able to apologise for the stuff we’d been going through. He died when I was 12.
“I know that [dealing with who I was] was hard for him because even as a child, I was very honest about my sexuality. Well, I didn’t know at the time what my sexuality was, but I was just being me – and I wasn’t who he wanted me to be. So he tried to beat it out of me, but of course, you can’t.”
Additionally, Daniels, who has twins – a son and a daughter, now aged 17 – says that The Butler made him think about his relationship with his son.
DIRECTOR: Lee Daniels (PA)
“When I finished Precious, my son was 13 and he and I were becoming separated – he was being difficult. Now… it’s not perfect but our relationship is getting better.
“In this story, the father and son come back together. That made me realise that kids do come back and a father and son relationship can be mended.”
Admitting that the rift between him and his son is partly due to the intensity of his work – “When I am into my work, I neglect my own health, I neglect my partner, my children and my family; I feel a lot of guilt about that” – the director explains that the process to get his movies made has never been plain sailing.
Still, the 53-year-old says that the “resilience” he developed as a child gave him a ‘never give up’ attitude in his career.
“I’ve never once had a movie green lit at the very beginning, but I’ve never taken ‘no’ for an answer. I guess I’ve always been resilient.
“As a kid, I was bullied for being gay and my mother took me away from an all-black environment and put me into an all-white environment – and then I was bullied for being black!
“So I’ve built up a sense of resilience and in my career, I’ve always had a very optimistic attitude in terms of racism, homophobia and other obstacles. It’s that resilience that has allowed me to be where I am today.”
But of course, rising to a position of prominence has its ups and downs. Perhaps more so for black personalities, with many in the community often looking to them to use their influence to address an array of race-related issues.
In the case of filmmakers like Daniels, a subject that often rears its head is that of black representation on the big screen.
Many slammed Precious for its gritty examination of abuse and incest in a black family, dubbing it a negative portrayal of black life. And with The Butler, some have voiced their disapproval that Hollywood has delivered another film about Civil Rights and black oppression – rather than producing more movies about contemporary black life.
Reflecting on this type of criticism, Daniels reveals that even his own mum has encouraged him to make films more like those of another well-known filmmaker…
“I struggle with this,” Daniels says of the pressure to live up to numerous expectations. “Even my mum is like, ‘Why can’t you make movies for the church? Why can’t you make movies like Tyler Perry?
“‘Sister so and so down at the church says there’s something wrong with you, making movies about paedophiles and all of that!’
“So I struggle with that. And I made The Butler for my mum – so that sister so and so down at her church would shut the f**k up!’ I did that so my mum could be happy.”
And is mum happy?
“Oh yeah,” he laughs. “They’re all happy down at the church now!”
And what does Daniels say to those who feel Hollywood should produce less slavery stories and more upbeat tales concerning black life in modern times?
“I say those people should go and make those movies! I’ve gotta do what I’ve gotta do. I’m an artist and I’m gonna do what God tells me to do.
“The Butler is a story of the Civil Rights movement and believe it or not, some people don’t know about this. I have a 30-year-old family member who watched the movie then asked me, ‘Is this real? Is this some make-believe s**t?’ But you know what? He knows that [Jewish holocaust victim] Anne Frank is real.
“So for those who say they are tired of seeing [Civil Rights] movies, they need to get a life and a clue. It angers me. That’s our history and God bless [British film director] Steve McQueen for making [the 2013 film] 12 Years A Slave. God bless him. We need these kind of movies."
He adds: “This is the problem we have – what is gonna make you happy black America and black world? What’s gonna make us happy? I can’t please everybody – I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t. So I have to be true to myself and do what my spirit and what God is telling me to do.”
The Butler is in cinemas from November 15