A butler who brought color to the White House

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

“The Butler” director Lee Daniels didn’t start out as a filmmaker but as an owner of a nursing agency in Los Angeles. “So I know how to gather funds, get the people, and treat filmmaking like a business,” he tells The Japan Times. “At the same time, once the filming starts, I can’t be just a businessman anymore. I have a story to tell, and want to tell it with as (few) restrictions as possible. That’s why I’m comfortable in an indies setting. Start to finish, I pretty much have control over the whole process.

Certainly that was the case with Daniels’ 2009 breakthrough movie “Precious,” which featured an overweight African-American teen in a New York slum, sexually abused by her father and ruthlessly nagged by her alcoholic mother. The material was considered so risqué that the American press first hesitated to comment on it, and then proceeded to shout its praises.

“The Butler” (released in Japan as Daitoryo no Shitsuji no Namida) is inspired by a Washington Post article about Eugene Allen, a black butler who served eight presidents during his tenure at the White House, including benevolent Dwight D. Eisenhower (portrayed by Robin Williams), rampant Republican Richard Nixon (John Cusack), heroic and sympathetic John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), pro-Apartheid Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) and everyone in between.

Based on Allen, butler Cecil Gaines is played by Forest Whitaker, whom Daniels describes as “a wonderful human being. He’s taught me how to be a black man. When I’m with him, I feel so proud.”

The film has been snubbed by next month’s Oscars, nominated for not a single Academy award. But as Daniels says, “It sure made a lot of money at the box office!”

To Daniels, though, “The Butler” was so much more than a film project. “You see my mother in there; you see my father,” he says. “Those are people I know and grew up with. That is my world.”

He identified with the character of Cecil, born a sharecropper’s son in the Deep South when a white man could shoot down a black man for no legitimate reason and go free. In the story, Cecil’s mother (Mariah Carey) is raped by a landowner’s son, and no one can do a thing to stop it.

Daniels said that telling this story was often “painful and enraging,” yet the process was a necessary step to “work out issues with my own father.” Daniels is the eldest of five siblings, and his father was a policeman before being killed when Daniels was just 13 years old.

“I grew up in extreme poverty, and I watched my mom juggling several jobs and a houseful of kids. So I totally identified with Cecil and what he had to go through. At the same time I remembered my father, and how he was always so full of anger and frustration. At the time, I thought it was all my fault, and that it was because of me that my father was so unhappy.”

This was the early 1960s, when racial segregation in the southern United States was common, tolerated and protected by law. When Daniels accompanied his dad to North Carolina, he was shown a water fountain with the signs “Colored” and “White” and told in no uncertain terms which he could drink from.

“I did what my dad told me, but when he wasn’t looking, I drank from the ‘White’ sign,” laughs Daniels. “I was too young to know what being a black kid meant. To me, ‘white’ just sounded better, you know, I thought it actually meant ‘Sprite.’ But it was the same water as the one that came from the ‘Colored’ tap. Imagine my surprise.”

Later, Daniels would face the racial adversity his father and countless others had suffered, and also have to clear the additional hurdle of being gay.

“I won’t say it was ever easy for me,” says Daniels. “But all the bad stuff — it’s never broken me.”

He has consistently refused to gloss over that bad stuff, but telling tales of life as a less-than-privileged African-American in the U.S. has involved struggles of significant proportions.

“I have a son; he’s 18,” says Daniels, who reportedly adopted his niece and nephew, twins Clara and Liam, when they were 3 days old. “And more than anyone, I wanted to show ‘The Butler’ to him. So I did, and when it was over I asked him, ‘So what did you think?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it was great!’ So I said, ‘Do you have any idea how hard it was to make this movie?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Until I see Spider-man and Superman being done by black actors, I won’t be convinced that times have changed.”

Daniels described the moment as being “definitive.” He had sent his kids to the school “where Robert De Niro and Spike Lee send their kids. I was able to give him something completely different from me.” Liam has never known what it is to live in poverty, or to be confronted with the kind of chaotic anger that Daniels got from his own father.

“But his words made me see things differently, because I knew exactly what he was talking about,” says Daniels. “Here I thought I was showing the enormous distance African-Americans covered to get to the spot where we are today, but it turns out that it wasn’t far enough.”

And in that moment, Daniels found himself no longer identifying with the butler Cecil Gaines, but with Cecil’s activist son Louis (David Oyelowo), who devotes his life to fighting for equal rights.

“You know, as a gay black man in N.Y., I stand on the street and cannot get a cab,” chuckles Daniels. When I protest in disbelief, he shakes his head. “Believe me, not even Obama can get a cab in Manhattan. That’s still how it is.”