BIAS & ‘THE BUTLER’
Gay director recalls experiences with racism, homophobia
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.