Gay di­rec­tor re­calls ex­pe­ri­ences with racism, ho­mo­pho­bia

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Gay di­rec­tor Lee Daniels on new film, fac­ing big­otry.

Gay di­rec­tor Lee Daniels’ ca­reer has had two dis­tinct stages. He was well known for pro­duc­ing films such as “Mon­ster’s Ball” and di­rect­ing “Shad­ow­boxer,” but his Acad­emy-Award win­ning film “Pre­cious” pushed him firmly to the ma­jor leagues.

Four years af­ter “Pre­cious” comes his new film, “Lee Daniels’ The But­ler.” It stars For­est Whitaker as Ce­cil Gaines, who be­gins work­ing in the cot­ton fields of seg­re­gated 1920s Ma­con, Ga., is taught to be a house ser­vant, and even­tu­ally gets a job as a but­ler in the White House, serv­ing seven pres­i­den­tial ad­min­is­tra­tions be­tween 1957 and 1986.

Re­turn­ing to act­ing af­ter an ex­tended ab­sence is Oprah Win­frey, who plays Ce­cil’s al­co­holic wife Glo­ria. Sev­eral no­table ac­tors and ac­tresses fill in as pres­i­dents and first ladies in­clud­ing John Cu­sack as Richard Nixon, Robin Wil­liams as Dwight Eisen­hower, Liev Schreiber as Lyn­don B. John­son, Jane Fonda as Nancy Rea­gan and James Mars­den as John F. Kennedy.

Daniels’ film, writ­ten by Danny Strong, is in­spired by a “Wash­ing­ton Post” ar­ti­cle writ­ten by Wil Hay­good ti­tled “A But­ler Well Served by This Elec­tion,” which was about for­mer White House but­ler Eu­gene Allen.

This isn’t Daniels’ first pro­ject since “Pre­cious” (that would be last year’s campy Ni­cole Kid­manZac Efron “The Paper­boy”) but this puts him squarely back in awards con­tention. The film of­fers a fas­ci­nat­ing por­trayal of Ce­cil’s rise as a but­ler through the chang­ing face of the coun­try — while his own son is at col­lege be­com­ing po­lit­i­cally aware, join­ing the Black Pan­thers, un­afraid to get ar­rested be­cause of his stances.

Daniels and Whitaker, who won a Best Ac­tor Os­car for his role in 2006’s “The Last King of Scot­land,” were in At­lanta last week pro­mot­ing the film.

Daniels has been sub­ject to racism, he ad­mits. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin ver­dict, he says it’s tough hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions with his son about racism.

“The birds and the bees is an eas­ier con­ver­sa­tion,” he says. “It’s hard to tell your son he is less than just be­cause, to ex­plain to him why your white neigh­bors can get a taxi while you can’t in the same spot. I want him to be loved. I don’t want my son to go through all that.”

Whitaker also re­counts ex­pe­ri­ences of racism. “We of color know; we en­counter it ev­ery day,” he says. “I don’t want to ac­knowl­edge it. It’s about mov­ing on, get­ting through it.”

Daniels’ dad died when he was young. Their re­la­tion­ship was not strong: His fa­ther was strict to the point of be­ing abu­sive, but so were his fa- ther’s fa­ther and grand­fa­ther and so.

“That was a cy­cle that had to stop.” he says. “It came from slav­ery.”

“I made this movie for my son. This movie is a love af­fair be­tween fa­ther and son; it’s univer­sal; be­yond color,” Daniels says. “As black peo­ple we don’t see this. Few movies ad­dress this. For me, it’s not just a his­tory les­son but show­ing us like we’ve never been seen be­fore.”

Al­though he has ar­ranged a ter­rific en­sem­ble of per­form­ers, he notes that “Oprah said no a cou­ple of times.”

Daniels was not happy that the bud­get of the film ($25 mil­lion) was lower than he wanted.

“I wanted a big­ger bud­get,” he says. “I as­sumed it if were Steven Spiel­berg (the bud­get) would have been a 70 mil­lion dol­lar movie. We worked for a frac­tion of our fees. It was a hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ence; it brought us to­gether.” Ho­mo­pho­bia has also af­fected the di­rec­tor. “Not only have I been prej­u­diced upon as an African-Amer­i­can all my life, but as a gay man,” he says. “I was bul­lied. I didn’t go to the bath­room be­cause I was bul­lied, called ‘sissy.’ From the time I was six through ju­nior high school. My mother wanted me away from that en­vi­ron­ment.”

Af­ter his fam­ily moved from the area he faced more is­sues.

“I went from [be­ing called] ‘fag­got fag­got fag­got’ to ‘nig­ger nig­ger nig­ger,’” Daniels re­calls. “I think that has made me the man I am. That nu­ance, that gay man, is on ev­ery frame of the screen.”

As part of his plan­ning for “Pre­cious,” he re­searched HIV/AIDS. He made a visit to the Gay Men’s Health Clinic in New York. He ex­pected to see a room full of white men with HIV but in­stead was dev­as­tated when he saw “a sea of women and chil­dren” in­stead, all black.

“I thought I was in the wrong room; I’m in the wel­fare of­fice,” he said. “They were all in­fected. They have trumped gay men with HIV.

“The rea­son we are deal­ing with HIV in the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity is that black men have been cas­trated since slav­ery. So the con­cept of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity or be­ing ho­mo­sex­ual is em­bar­rass­ing. It’s been dealt with in dif­fer­ent ways,” Daniels says.

“We have to be strong black men. In do­ing so, we’ve de­nied who we are. Your church, your par­ents, co­work­ers, neigh­bors, friends say you can’t be out. In do­ing that, we’re in­fect­ing our women with HIV.

“I did ‘Pre­cious’ for all the African Amer­i­can men who are afraid to come out, be­cause of the fear. It’s a pow­er­ful thing to own up to one’s sex­u­al­ity.”

“Lee Daniels’ The But­ler” opens Aug. 16 in At­lanta the­aters.

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