‘A Personal Story’

While ‘The Butler’ tells a far-reaching tale, for Lee Daniels, it’s really about family


In “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” Robin Williams (left, with Forest Whitaker) portrays Dwight D. Eisenhower.

With one hand gesture, Lee Daniels makes it very clear what he thinks about the title of his new film, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” (He isn’t fond of it.)

The title is a compromise forced on him because “The Butler” was already taken by a 1916 short film. Yet even if you removed the director’s name from the quotation marks, the movie would still be intensely personal for the director.

In the film, Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, an African-American White House butler who serves under seven U.S. presidents, from Eisenhower to Reagan. (The movie was inspired by the true-life story of Eugene Allen, butler to eight presidents.) The presidents are portrayed by a parade of stars — James Marsden is Kennedy, Alan Rickman is Reagan — in what are essentially cameos.

Gaines’ life in marble hallways is played for stark contrast with the life of his son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who’s deeply involved in the civil rights movement.

“It’s a civil rights story, but it’s a personal story,” says Daniels, who was nominated for the best director Oscar in 2010 for “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire.”

“When I got the script, I did it because of the father-and-son story,” he says. “The civil rights movement was something in the background. I thought we’d seen that before. What I loved was it’s really about family.”

Daniels sees echoes of his life in the life of Gaines, who left a Georgia cotton field to work in hotels before reaching the White House.

“He was supposed to be lynched or killed or be an indentured servant for the rest of his life,” he says. “That’s like me. I wasn’t supposed to leave the projects. I should have had HIV; I went from dodging bullets as a child to dodging HIV in the ’80s and ’90s. Cecil’s journey is about what happens when you simply put blinders on to achieve great things. And those great things were simply not enough for his son, because his son wanted greater things.”

The struggle between Cecil and Louis is another intensely personal element of the film for Daniels.

“His father wanted the best for [Louis], and the best simply wasn’t good enough,” Daniels says. “I compare it to my son. I showed my son the film and I said, ‘Haven’t we come a long way?’ He said, ‘What are you talking about? I want to be able to watch a black Spider-Man.’

“He wants more than what I want,” Daniels says. “I think that’s a good thing.”

Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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Kristen Page-Kirby · August 16, 2013