The new historical drama “The Butler,” starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, has done exceedingly well in its first weekend of release. After being shown in 2,933 theaters, the film has taken in a strong $25 million domestically. It’s also received a influx of good reviews, with publications like Entertainment Weekly calling it “an ambitious, sweeping period drama” and the New York Times deeming it “unlike almost every other movie about race in America.” Almost unsurprisingly, it managed to beat out stoner comedy “We’re the Millers” and the Damon/Foster thriller “Elysium” by a sizable amount.
The fascinating thing, then, is how much difficulty director Lee Daniels claims he faced in getting the film from start to finish:
“It took us four years to get the movie made,” notes Daniels in an interview with The Daily Beast. “But that’s indicative of my struggle in all of my work … Getting money raised for any movie is hard, but getting raised for movies in this world—African-American cinema—is even harder.”
Curiously, Daniels doesn’t take time to explain what that opposition actually was. Instead, what he does convey is just how impacting the screenplay turned out to be on the minds of those actors and actresses who were approached:
“I think Danny Strong’s script spoke volumes to the actors,” Daniels says, “and they were so honored to serve the material.” It was quite the ensemble cast who picked up on it, too. The movie boasts dozens of main roles and cameos of everyone from Robin Williams to Lenny Kravitz to Jane Fonda. According to Daniels, he might have even picked up President Obama for a role if only he hadn’t been too hesitant to ask him.
The film portrays the story of Cecil Gaines, a fictional version of the real-life Eugene Allen who was employed at the White House between 1952 and 1986 as a “pantry man,” a butler, and then eventually took on the role of Maître d’hôtel (or headwaiter).
One factor not to be ignored in the film’s popularity is that of Oprah Winfrey’s prowess as a public figure. “The Butler” is Oprah’s first film in a long while, since Jonathan Demme’s “Beloved” released 15 years ago. What Oprah has done for books will certainly continue to manifest itself in movies, as well as any other medium she takes upon. “An Oprah Winfrey endorsement,” observes Paul Dergarabedian of Hollywood.com, “virtually guarantees you a hit.”
This is profoundly true. The fact that an African-American woman wields so much influence over American culture makes me wonder: what were the actual biases and insurmountable racial difficulties that Lee Daniels faced in making this film? What does he suppose that we have yet to be overcome?
“We have a great African-American that’s running the DGA [Paris Barclay],” he affirms, “and an African-American woman [Cheryl Boone Isaacs] that’s running the Academy.” But there needs to be more, it seems; a certain unspecified something that’ll really seal the deal: “I think we’ve come a long way, and we’re almost there.”
Not quite yet?
With all due respect, what nonsense. Our country has a top-grossing film with an all-star black cast and a massively successful non-white director. African-American stories are actually being told by, in Daniels’ estimation, the ones who should be able to tell it best. “I’m excited that African-American stories are being told, period,” he notes, adding that “I’m just honored that people think enough of African-Americans to tell our stories.”
When Lee Daniels proclaims that “we’ve come a long way,” he unfortunately seems to forget it all too quickly.
Written By: Chris Bacavis