Lee Daniels’ ‘The Butler’ tops the U.S. box Office

The historical drama starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey came in No.1 at the box office this weekend, earning $25 million in 2,933 theaters.

Forest Whitaker and Cuba Gooding Jr.

The emotional drama based on the true story of a black White House butler who waits on eight different presidents during his 34-year tenure is gut-wrenching and emotionally affecting. Inspired by an article titled “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” it chronicles the real life of former White House butler Eugene Allen.

A film which begins in 1926 and follows a young fictional Cecil Gaines (Whitaker) as he flees the cotton fields of the segregated South through to his tenure at the White House and Obama’s election in 2008, it’s one of the boldest cinematic portrayals of the plight of American blacks ever filmed.

Featuring an impressive lineup of distinguished actors that includes Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Caribpress caught up with director Lee Daniels (“Precious”) to talk about the film.

Why did you decide to make this film? What made the story important to you?
I’d never seen a film that chronicled the civil rights movement, from the beginning into the Obama administration, through the eyes of a father and son. This film puts a perspective on things that people went through, even in my lifetime, so that we could do things like vote. It goes beyond black and white, which was important to me, because it’s a father-son story on top of being a civil rights story. It transcends race, it transcends America – it’s universal. It’s not just a history lesson, but rather the story of a family.

This is different than any other film you’ve ever made. Are there differences in how you approached this material versus the other material you’ve worked with in the past?
This is the hardest movie I’ve ever directed. I realized early on that the way I view the world and the way the average person views the world is different. There’s no sexual content, little profanity and the violence is at a minimum, though we’re dealing with a very violent period in time. As a filmmaker, I really had to restrain myself, and I’m proud of that. I had a great crew, great partners in producer Pam Williams and screenwriter Danny Strong, and an incredible group of actors that helped me help myself because they know I’m a free spirit. I embrace people who embrace me and the way I think and work. It’s hard to do a PG-13 movie being Lee Daniels, but we did it.

What was it like working with the two main stars Forest and Oprah?
He and Oprah were magical as Cecil and Gloria. Forest brought elegance, class, and vulnerability to the character of Cecil that I don’t think anyone else could have managed. He had an ability to make Cecil change, grow, and see the light.  With Oprah in particular, she hadn’t worked as an actor in a long time, so it was nerve-racking to carry the burden of making her as good as she was in ‘The Color Purple’  She was a genius in that film. But on her first day on set, she came out with guns blazing. It was beautiful.  She stands in line like everyone else for catering, she doesn’t hold herself any differently than any other actor. She’s a billionaire but she didn’t act like one on set. She arrived every day on her own, without an entourage, and was very supportive to the entire process. She was there as a hired gun and she came to serve the character of Gloria as an actor. I look forward to working with her again.

There are a few stars in the movie from Jane Fonda to Robin Williams.  What was it like working on a film with such a large cast?
Working on this was hard because normally I make a film that’s a moment in time – a summer, or a year, and that’s it. This one, on the other hand, was decades. There was one star after another. We start off with Robin Williams, and we move on to Vanessa Redgrave, and then to Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. and Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker and Terence Howard. To get performances from people, you have to spend time with them. The actors really had a love affair with the film. I think Jane Fonda is wonderful as Nancy Reagan, I think Alan Rickman is incredible as Ronald, as are Alex Pettyfer and David Banner. Casting the presidents was the tricky part, because I didn’t want an audience to be like, “Look at John Cusack playing President Nixon, or look at Robin Williams playing Eisenhower, or James Marsden playing Kennedy.” You had to make them disappear, and to do that you had to not make them caricatures but instead just have them be human. My take on them was to approach them as just men.

Was there a particular scene that was particularly challenging to shoot, or that stands out to you?
There’s a scene where Oprah sits at the vanity and she’s putting on lipstick. She’s drunk and she wants her husband to make love to her. I was so nervous about shooting it. I thought to myself, “How do I get the world to not recognize her as Oprah? She’s Oprah Winfrey! How do I get her to disappear?” In it she talks about Jackie Kennedy and about how many pairs of shoes Jackie owns. She is resentful that her husband is in the White House tending to Jackie instead of tending to his own wife. When we went to shoot it, I was terrified because it’s intimidating to critique her.

Rated PG-13. “The Butler” is currently playing in theaters.

Pictured top right: (l-r) stars of the movie Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo at  the Regal Cinemas L.A. Live in Los Angeles, California (Photo By Shola Orol). Pictured bottom left: director Lee Daniels.


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