Witness to history: Lee Daniels chronicles Civil Rights struggle as seen by longtime White House butler

Eighty years separate Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Frank Lloyd’s Cavalcade, but they basically follow the same pattern, chronicling the journey of one man’s family through the highs and lows of their respective generations like stepping stones across a brook.

Cavalcade, which earned Oscars for director Lloyd and Best Picture, hails from a Noel Coward play that tracked the fortunes and misfortunes of well-to-do London residents from one New Year’s Eve in 1899 to another in 1933, making story stops at the Second Boer War, Queen Victoria’s death, the Titanic sinking and World War I.

It advertised itself—truthfully—as the “Picture of the Generation,” as could the Daniels film, which throws a wide net from Eisenhower in 1957 to Reagan in 1986, viewing the sights of the times in close-up through the eyes of an African-American house servant who waits on the First Family first and his own family second. Here, seen passing in review in the distance: Civil Rights, Freedom Riders, Black Panthers, Vietnam, the assassinations of Kennedy(s) and King and the Watergate scandal.

By anchoring the story to a specific set of characters and letting the tide of social events wash over them, these two films effectively humanize history. Daniels’ saga, in particular, is acutely close to the national heartbeat because its title character is a White House butler within earshot of upheavals before and after they occur.

Just such a person existed. His name was Eugene Allen, and his unique perspective on the doings of the Oval Office was brought to light by Wil Haygood’s 2008 article in the Washington Post, “A Butler Well Served by This Election”—this election being the one that won the presidency for Barack Obama. It was an especially heart-swelling moment for an African-American who had spent three decades attending to the residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue when the Civil Rights Movement was in full sway.

The Obama victory is the emotional cherry-on-the-sundae for this film, and it’s apt to be deeply moving to anyone, regardless of race. “At the end of the day, we’re Americans,” Daniels says simply. “This is my love letter to all of America.”

Daniels, the first African-American to direct a Best Picture contender (2009’s Precious), was third choice to helm this human epic, after the obvious high-profile picks (Spike Lee and Tyler Perry) passed. And, like it or not, he has wound up with Tyler Perry’s possessive, above-the-title billing—through a ridiculous altercation between his distributor The Weinstein Co. and Warner Bros. settled by the Motion Picture Association of America’s voluntary Title Registration Bureau, which feared his Butler would be confused with a short Warner made in 1916. Where were these watchdogs when Jodie Foster’s rape movie was named after Loretta Young’s rape movie (The Accused) or when the remake of The Big Clock borrowed the title of a Richard Widmark-Sidney Poitier racial clash (No Way Out)? Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna successfully recycled two movie titles (Made for Each Other and It Had To Be You) without so much as a peep from the MPAA.

In any event, Daniels’ name does not rest easily above the title of his picture. “I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that,” he confesses. “I think insiders understand that the MPAA forced this on us, but I don’t want kids who are aspiring to be filmmakers to think that Lee Daniels deserves to be in front of the title. It’s not a good thing.”

Surely, as titles go, The Butler could be topped—say by The Butler to Presidents or All the Presidents’ Butler. Why did he fight so hard for that particular title when others were possible? “At one point, they wouldn’t allow us to have anything with the word butler in it—unless it was Lee Daniels’ The Butler. That was the edict from the MPAA.”

The picture’s other major name change was that of Eugene Allen himself. Despite his unprecedented Presidential view of history, he apparently led such an exemplary life that it required some fictional garnishing. Hence, Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, whose devotion to the First Family upends his own, alienating his two sons (both moderate and anti-establishment) and driving his wife to drink and an affair.

“We took liberties with certain things,” Daniels concedes. He didn’t have a second child. His first child did butt heads with him, though. His wife—the Gloria character—was not an alcoholic, but the possibility of an extramarital affair was there, and we took creative license. But those were the only liberties, really.

“However, Nancy Reagan did invite him to the White House dinner. Ronald Reagan did ask him if he was doing the right thing on apartheid. Jack Kennedy and his wife did give him the tie, and LBJ did give him the tie clip. So we wove in and out of truths just for the sake of storytelling. That’s why we say it’s based on a true story.”

Missing in action from the parade of Presidents that The Butler served are Gerald Ford (1974-1977) and Jimmy Carter (1977-1981). What happened? “I thought it would be too episodic if I brought in all the Presidents. [They were] written in, but I thought instead, ‘Time for montage. We’ll have Gladys Knight over the montage.’ If we nailed every President, people would be thinking, ‘Let’s move this story on, and let’s not dwell on the Presidents.’ It’s really about the family, not the White House.”

Oprah Winfrey rules the roost of the home-away-from-the-White-House in a varied and emotionally available performance as the neglected Mrs. Gaines—her first on the screen in 15 years and a plausible bid for the Oscar. Like Monroe’s and Garbo’s, hers is a face the camera loves, and she doesn’t lie to it. Probably, she couldn’t.

When she executive-produced Precious, she asked Daniels to find her a good role for a screen return. When he did just that with this film, she ducked and ran, but he pursued tenaciously and successfully. “We had to get her away from all of what she knew—everybody ogling her like she was the Queen of England—and just accept her as an actress doing a job. She was there for me. She trusted me. She took direction. She was open and vulnerable and turns in a beautiful performance,”

With Winfrey and Oscar-winner Whitaker aboard, the all-stars started to pile on—famous faces masquerading as political personages. When Matthew McConaughey and Liam Neeson had to bow out as JFK and LBJ respectively, James Marsden and Liev Schreiber bowed in. The makeup people worked overtime to turn Robin Williams and John Cusack into Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. The most creative and unexpected performance is Alan Rickman’s Ronald Reagan; the cleanest and most controversial is the one Jane Fonda gives as his wife, Nancy.

Casting dizzily crossed party lines. Conservatives are rattling ancient sabers over “Hanoi Jane” playing “The Evita of Beverly Hills.” Fonda’s reaction: “Get a life.”
“I got nervous about casting Jane because of her political views,” admits Daniels. “I didn’t want anything to distract from the portrayal. I didn’t want Republicans coming after me. I wanted everyone to see the film. I wasn’t courting controversy.”

Fonda was fiercely fair-handed about the performance, Daniels says. “She wanted to make sure that Nancy was portrayed accurately. What we did was accurate, but it wasn’t positive, and she wasn’t interested in conveying anything but the positive about Nancy Reagan. There were a couple of lines that were given to her that were written out. What I tried to do with all of the Presidents was show the good and the bad sides—and I was going to do that with some of the First Ladies, too.”

Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron were to be in the picture at one point, Daniels notes. Danny Strong, the screenwriter, “was writing characters for specific actors, but when they turned out to be unavailable, they were written out. Here’s the thing: It’s a merry-go-round. When you’ve just got two dollars to pay these actors—plus a bag of M&Ms—and they have to leave their day job—their real working jobs—to come into our playing ground, you have to understand you’re going to lose some of these actors. The schedules don’t necessarily work out all the time.”

The splendid assemblage that Daniels got for his picture he credits to Strong’s strong script. “I think they were impressed by the material that we put together. I think they wanted to serve the material and be a part of the history it told.”

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is the last film produced by Laura Ziskin, who died of breast cancer at age 61. “The movie is dedicated to Laura,” Daniels says. “She believed in me and fought for me to do the film. She’s dancing on clouds right now, I’m sure.”

The next film on Daniels’ agenda will be some more contemporary American history: Janis Joplin: Get It While You Can, starring Amy Adams. “Ron Terry is the producer, writer and music supervisor. He was a producer who worked with Janis, so he wrote the screenplay. I’m going to help him with the script and then direct it.”