'The Butler': 'It's Not A Movie — It's A Movement'

Originally published on August 9, 2013 7:03 pm

Lee Daniels has directed critically acclaimed films that deal with difficult subject matter before, but he says working on The Butler was "the hardest thing he's ever done."

The film chronicles the life of a man who rose from the cotton fields of North Carolina to work in the White House, witnessing some of the most important moments in this nation's history.

The movie's main character, Cecil Gaines, is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, who worked at the White House for over three decades. Allen and his wife, Helene, were profiled by Washington Post writer Wil Haygood during the 2008 presidential election.

Daniels and Haygood sat down with Tell Me More host Michel Martin to talk about The Butler, and the man who inspired it all.


Interview Highlights

On the search for a witness

In the midst of the 2008 presidential campaign, journalist Wil Haygood had a feeling that Barack Obama was going to win. And he wanted to profile someone who had witnessed the civil rights movement from the 1960s to the present time.

"I just knew it was going to exhaust the hell out of me," Haygood says. "I was just looking for anybody — a butler, a maid, somebody who washed the windows."

Haygood made call after call, searching for someone who would fit the bill. Eventually he struck gold with Eugene Allen. "I was under the impression he had worked for three presidents. He corrected me, and he said it was eight."

On the story's relationship with the civil rights era

Although it delves into the civil rights movement, Daniels says that wasn't his initial intention. "This story is really a love affair for me. A father-son love affair that transcended race. It wasn't until we started shooting some of the atrocities that happened in the South that I realized that this was on another level.

Daniels described one scene in particular that stood out for him. "We were shooting the bus scene; there were freedom riders on the bus. It was hot, it was a real bus, and I'm in the center of the bus with these kids on a bridge where black men were lynched."

Daniels says that after yelling 'action,' actors playing the role of KKK members stormed the bus carrying burning crosses and yelling insults.

"I'm a little scared, and I think so were the actors on the bus, and I yell to the window 'cut.' But they can't hear me," says Daniels. "And I realize — when it happened — there was no one to yell cut for these children, and that these kids were really fighting for the soul of our country, and that they were heroes in a way that I could never be. ... That's when I realized it was a bigger movie than just a father-son story. It's not a movie — it's a movement."

On why the story is relevant today

Daniels says that when he makes a movie he goes into a cocoon and often disconnects from the outside world and news of the day to focus on painting an accurate historical picture. But he noted that the film's conversations about race are still relevant today. "I come out, and Trayvon Martin is happening. It's out of body. It leaves me speechless. I'm at a sense of loss, because I did the movie, we end on hope. Cecil walking down, and Obama's speaking, and this glorious music, and those iconic words from those presidents are inundating us, and you know where are we?"

On what the movie would mean to Eugene Allen

Allen died in 2010 and wasn't able to see the film inspired by his life make it to the big screen. But Haygood thinks there's still something beautiful about that:

"To me, it's almost biblical. The last shall be first. The movie is about the butler. He's up in heaven. He can tell President Eisenhower, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Reagan. He can tell them, 'Hey, we're having a movie in the theater of heaven tonight. It's called Lee Daniels' The Butler, and it's really not about any eight of you, it's about the guy who used to serve you the popcorn at the White House theater. It's about me. Have a seat.' I think that's beautiful."

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now we want to talk about one of the most anticipated movies of the year. It is filled with stars. And it's based on the story of one man's incredible life journey from the cotton fields of the segregated South to the gleaming halls of the White House. We are talking about Lee Daniels', "The Butler."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BUTLER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Are you political, Mr. Gaines?

FOREST WHITAKER: (As Cecil Gaines) No, sir.

ACTOR: Good, We have no tolerance for politics at the White House.

WHITAKER: (As Cecil Gaines) I'm Cecil Gaines, I'm the new butler.

MARTIN: That was Forest Whitaker as the butler. And joining us now is the director of "The Butler," Lee Daniels. Welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us once again.

LEE DANIELS: Thanks for having me once again.

MARTIN: Also joining us, journalist Wil Haygood. He wrote a piece in 2008 in the Washington Post about Eugene Allen - he's the man whose life inspired this film. Wil Haygood, welcome back to you as well. Thank you so much for joining us.

WIL HAYGOOD: Great to be here.

MARTIN: So, Wil Haygood, Eugene Allen is the person that the film is loosely, I want to say, based upon. How did you find him, and why were you looking for him to begin with?

HAYGOOD: In 2008, I was a reporter at the Washington Post on the Obama campaign trail. I just made up my mind, or I just thought, that Obama was going to win. He was down 10 points. Hilary Clinton and was still in the race. My editor did not think he was going to win, but I said he's going to win and I want to have a character ready to write about this amazing moment. So I just launched this nationwide search - shoe leather, phone calls, phonebooks - and after the 57th call a man by the name of Eugene Allen answered the phone. I was under the impression he had worked for three Presidents. He corrected me and he said it was eight - Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan.

MARTIN: Why him? Was it the fact of the proximity to power? The fact of having been in the White House?

HAYGOOD: Sort of. I thought it was going to be impossible to find someone or I just knew it was going to exhaust the hell out of me, trying to find such a person. I was just looking for anybody - a butler, a maid, somebody who washed the windows at the White House. I just knew I wanted somebody who was in the White House before the civil rights legislation passed. Because whoever this person was, they were working at the most powerful address in the world and if they were a southerner, when they went home to visit family they had used a segregated bathroom, or wait 'til the Whites walked out of the dress shop before they could go in. And, that in my mind, as a journalist, would be a great find if I could find such a person.

MARTIN: So, Lee Daniels, how did you find this project or how did this project find you? And why did you want to do it?

DANIELS: I'm just thinking about what Wil said, sorry. And Wil, so, was it difficult to get - I'm going to play interviewer, 'cause we haven't really - I haven't asked you this question - was it - were they - did they openly give you - was it immediate? Was it immediate acceptance into their home? 'Cause black people are funny, you know what I mean? They don't just let you into their homes.

HAYGOOD: Yeah. One of the first questions she asked me, Mrs. Allen, she said, who're your people?

(LAUGHTER)

HAYGOOD: Haygoods, I haven't heard about any Haygoods. And then she said, where are you from? And I told her I was from Columbus, Ohio. But I wanted to make that southern connection, because she's from North Carolina. And I quickly said, my grandparents, who raised me however, are from Selma, Alabama. That struck a chord. But she said - and "The Price is Right" is getting ready to come on the TV and we watched that, back-to-back episodes, so you're going to have to hold your fire.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And I bet you did, that's right.

HAYGOOD: Hold the fire. Oh, my goodness. And I got right into it. Don't bet on that. What are you doing? That's not worth no $59. You know.

DANIELS: You see why I'm so fascinated by it.

MARTIN: Well, what is it that you saw?

DANIELS: What I saw in the film - in the script, in the story, originally, was the father and son story. You know, I have a teenage son and once my son turned 13, things changed. You know, I say white, he say black. I say day, he say night. I say go to bed, he say hell no. And I said, when is it going to stop? You know, I love you. And I think that this story is really a love affair for me -father-son love affair that transcended race. I didn't want to make this important civil rights movie. I didn't intend on making that and it was wasn't until we started shooting some of the atrocities that happened in the South did I realize that this was on another level.

We were in the bus, shooting the bus scene. There were freedom riders on the bus. And it was hot, it was a real bus and I'm in the center of the bus with these kids, on a bridge, where black men were lynched. And I yell action. And from nowhere comes these KKK people running up to the bus. Shaking the bus. Nazis, swastikas, fire, fire, fire crosses, nasty words. And I'm a little scared, and I think that so were the people, the actors that were on the bus. And I yelled to the window, cut. But they can't hear me, because the window's up. And the windows - we have all these people surrounding us, and I go cut, cut. And I realized that when it happened that there was no one to yell cut for these children. And that these kids were really fighting for the soul of our country and they were heroes in a way that I could never be. I have two kids, I could take a bullet for my kids, but I don't know that I could take a bullet for a cause. So that's when I realized, oh Lord, this is a bigger movie than just a father-son story. But it's not a movie, it's a movement.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with director Lee Daniels. And writer Wil Haygood. Wil Haygood's story about a White House butler who served 8 presidents inspired Lee Daniels' new film - "The Butler." For people who aren't familiar with it, there are two story lines - there is the relationship that the character, who becomes Cecil Gaines in the movie, has with his son - particularly his oldest son, who's played David Oyelowo - who becomes an activist. And then there's the work. This sets - it's set against the backdrop of the work at the White House where he's supposed to not have any politics. In fact, he's supposed to be invisible. And I just want to play a short clip from the movie. In this clip, Louis, who's as we said, Mr. Gaines' son, he comes home after being away for a long time working in the movement. And it's tense. I'll just play that short clip. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BUTLER")

OPRAH WINFREY: (As Gloria Gaines) What was the name of that movie, honey?

WHITAKER: (As Cecil Gaines) "In the Heat of the Night."

WINFREY: (As Gloria Gaines) "In the Heat of the Night," with Sidney Portier.

DAVID OYELOWO: (As Louis Gaines) Sidney Portier is a white man's fantasy of what he wants us to be.

ACTOR: What're you talking about? He just won the Academy award. He's breaking down barriers for all of us.

OYELOWO: (As Louis Gaines) By being white, by acting white. Sidney Portier is nothing but a rich Uncle Tom.

WHITAKER: (As Cecil Gaines) Look at you. All puffed up, with your hat on your head, coming in here, saying whatever you want. You need to go.

OYELOWO: (As Louis Gaines) What?

WHITAKER: (As Cecil Gaines) Get the hell out of my house.

OYELOWO: (As Louis Gaines) What are you doing?

WINFREY: (As Gloria Gaines) Now everybody just sit down.

OYELOWO: (As Louis Gaines) I'm sorry, Mr. Butler, I didn't mean to make fun of your hero.

WINFREY: (As Gloria Gaines) Everything you are and everything you have is 'cause of that butler.

MARTIN: And we didn't mention that, of course, Oprah plays Mrs. Gaines in the film. As we're sitting here, Wil is still enjoying this scene, and I'm wondering how many times you've seen it. So there's a lot here. There's the - I want to ask you both about this but Lee Daniels, I'll start with you. I can see you're going for two things, you're going for emotional truth but you're also going for historical accuracy. Which was more important to you?

DANIELS: Both equally. Equally. It was like walking a tight rope. It was like being at my kitchen table. I can't direct something if I haven't lived it and I don't know it and I don't know what's on that table - from the hot sauce to the collard greens to the fabric of the wall, to her hair and his sweater. All of it lives inside of me. And yet, I had to stay true to what the politics were of the time. So it was challenging.

MARTIN: I think a lot of people will appreciate the interactions between the parents and the kids. I mean, there are some of the classic black parenting lines.

DANIELS: I brought you into this world, I'll take you out.

MARTIN: To name one.

DANIELS: Yeah.

MARTIN: But, Wil, as a journalist, I want to ask you this question - how accurate, historically, did you find the film? Was it painful for you that there were details that were changed, one assumes, including the name of the principals. Was that hard?

HAYGOOD: No. A film maker has a big canvas. And they have to paint onto that canvas. The arc of the story is about this butler who did work and sometimes lived at the White House during periods of bad weather. He was there during the echoes of the murder of Emmet Till, during the murder of Medgar Evers, during the Vietnam War, during the four girls bombed in the church, during the Selma March - he was actually there. He witnessed whatever Eisenhower was saying about the integration efforts at Little Rock. He witnessed John F. Kennedy's thoughts about the March on Washington. So he was there, and so, the essence of the movie strikes me as very honorable.

MARTIN: Did you talk to Mr. Allen about that? I mean, that is one of the things I think the movie shows very, I think, effectively. How it shows a lot of the big things that a lot of people know about the physical humiliations, the dangers, the physical danger, the threat of death that a lot of people in the movement faced. But it also shows the of the drip, drip, drip, of kind of daily humiliation of being invisible. And Mr. - the character, Mr. Allen, who becomes Cecil Gaines, is literally expected to be invisible while people are saying things about him and people he loves - more broadly, his community.

As if he weren't there. And did Mr. Allen talk to you about that in your interviews with him? About what it was like to literally be invisible? We're people saying this things - were basically saying that black people aren't really people, they're - we don't have to do anything for them, that kind of thing. Was he - did he talk to you about that?

HAYGOOD: You know, he was very frustrated about, you know, about this wall, this bubble, he lived in - 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The most powerful address in the world and yet, he could go back to his native Virginia before the 1964 Civil Rights Act and he would have to go into a segregated bathroom. And the next morning, if he drove back into Washington, he, you know, he was, you know, he was not worried about being insulted or being called the N-word. And so he was always, not stunned, but he always worried if the nation would change. Because he obviously loved his country more than his country loved him at times. You know, much of this man's life was lived as a second-class citizen.

MARTIN: But, you know, to that point, Lee Daniels, the film also talks about the fact that, within the White House, that African-Americans - black people - were not paid the same as Whites. In fact, there are some rather painful scenes where he tries to talk to his boss about that. Is that - why was that important to put in there?

DANIELS: Because it happened. And it's happening. I mean, I think what I found interesting for me, it's not about the movie, but how the movie affects me. How my experience in making the movie - what happened to me as a man during the making of the movie? Those lines, any white man could kill any black man at any time and get away with it. The law was not on our side, the law was against us. Trayvon Martin had not happened then. And when I make a movie I go into my bubble and I, you know, I come back, I'm overweight, my kids ain't speaking to me, 'cause I disappeared on them, and it really is - I'm in a cocoon making a child. I look at these films as children.

And so - and I'm not watching the news, I'm really disconnected to the world, because I'm in it, deep in it. And so when I come out and I see that the scene that we shot, where Johnson passes the Voting Rights Bill - and I come out and Trayvon Martin is happening, and the Supreme Court does what they do, it's out of body. It leaves me speechless. I'm at a sense of loss, because I did the movie. We end on hope. Cecil's walking down and Obama is speaking, and this glorious music, and those iconic words from those presidents are inundating us. And, you know, where are we?

MARTIN: I was going to ask you that. Where do you end up with where we are? What do you want people to feel or think when they walk out?

DANIELS: Well, I wanted people to think that there was hope. That's how I ended the movie, because I didn't - I wasn't aware of everything that was going on. Because filmmaking is a very selfish process, it's me, me, me, me, me and you're in it. And you just don't have time to react to the world. You're like in this studio right here, and you're painting this canvass. So I want people to think that we've got a long way to go and we've come a long way. The film is generational, you know. I think about, again, my son - I showed him the movie, I was nervous. Is he going to like the movie, oh Lord, what is he going to think about the film? And he said, dad I loved the film.

I said, you know, this was the hardest thing I've ever done, son. It was the hardest thing I've ever done. And don't you think it's important? And he says, well, you know, yeah, I guess, but look I want to see myself as Spiderman. Like - what are you talking about? And I realized that he wants more and it's no different from Cecil and Louis. He wants more. It's not enough that I made this film, he wants a movie where he can look at himself, a 17-year-old kid, and see Spiderman or Superman. And it's - he's dreaming bigger than my dreams.

MARTIN: Wil, final thought from you. What do you hope people will draw from this film, which is inspired by your 57 phone calls to find Mr. Eugene Allen? Who has since left us, sadly. He didn't get to see the film made.

HAYGOOD: Yes. To me it's almost Biblical. The last shall be first. The movie is about the butler. He's up in heaven. He can tell President Eisenhower, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Reagan. He can tell them - hey, we're having a movie. In the theater of heaven tonight, it's called Lee Daniels' "The Butler." And it's really not about any 8 of you, it's about the guy who used to serve you the popcorn at the White House theater. It's about me. Have a seat. I think that's beautiful.

MARTIN: Wil Haygood is a writer and journalist. He wrote about the man who inspired the movie, Lee Daniels' "The Butler." His book is called "The Butler: A Witness to History." He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios, along with the Lee Daniels, the director of Lee Daniels' "The Butler." It premiers August 16th. They're both here in Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

DANIELS: Thank you for having us.

HAYGOOD: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and that was TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.