Lee Daniels on Racism and THE BUTLER: The White House Was "A Plantation"

Writer; London/Tokyo (@seven_cinemas)
Lee Daniels on Racism and THE BUTLER: The White House Was "A Plantation"

Director Lee Daniels has been in Japan recently to promote his latest, Lee Daniels The Butler, and after a screening of the film at the Foreign Correspondent's Club the director was met with more than just the usual film-related inquiries.

There were people present with their own recollections of actions during the civil rights movement, including an elderly Japanese man who was a student in Los Angeles in 1961 and had tried to help out but was told by his foreign student advisor to "stay out of our political problems or go back to Tokyo". A Jewish-American woman talked of her time as a civil rights veteran and questioned the lack of Jewish representation in the movie; Daniels countered that there was an adequate amount of white faces represented in the movie's civil rights scenes.

The mixture of personal experience with the director's own forthright opinions made for an interesting Q&A. Below are some of the highlights

Q. Your approach seems to be from an independent filmmaking stance and I'm just really curious how do you assemble a cast like this from that approach. The list of actors that don't have an Oscar is shorter than the ones that do, you can't possibly have paid all of them! How did you do it?

Lee Daniels: The material was just very good. You know the accuracy, and I say accuracy because they weren't just movie stars they were political activists, and they all wanted to make a statement. I don't have any money, it's like putting on theatre, and we are all pitching in. Sometimes the makeup artist sees the check has cleared sometimes it hasn't, but we do it because we love, love, love the story.

Considering a lot of the backlash that films like 12 YEARS A SLAVE and THE BUTLER received from the black community, having to do with at least expressing some other aspect of history of African Americans or black people period, would you consider, or have you considered, making a film that depicts the conquerors, the explorers, the kings and the queens that have existed that never get represented in film?

I can't speak for 12 Years A Slave, but there was a backlash for The Butler before people saw it. Once African Americans saw it, there was a love fest. They took their mothers and their grandmothers and their grandchildren, the grandfathers, the cousins, then it became a church event. It is a homage to my father who was a servant, my mother who was a servant, their parent's who were servants and their parent's parent's who were slaves. There will never be enough stories about these courageous people. And though I think it's terrific to celebrate leaders, I don't come from leaders. I come from workers who were leaders in their own right and they need to be celebrated and I'm not embarrassed about that.

Did you have any idea on which cast member to cast in each role? And did you have any problems taking those roles?

As I said before, the material spoke so loudly to the eight Oscar winners that we had in the film, they were very excited to work for me, for free. But that was the hardest part of the filming for me, was making them disappear, praying to God that it wasn't a circus. I've been criticized for it, but I did the very best that I could. Because there were no African American stars, inclusive of Oprah Winfrey, that green lit the film, so those white actors that were there supporting me were the green light factor of the film. They got me the cash. So I was forced to make them disappear. I think the universe, God helped me do that.

Obviously you're too young to have taken part in the civil rights movement, how did you prepare to make this film, do your research, prepare to shoot it and portray it as accurately as you did?

Oh, I'm not too young! I'll be 55 soon. I'm from Philadelphia, and so my earliest memories on learning how to read were driving from Philadelphia to North Carolina to visit my Grandmother. I was 4 or 5 and I had to learn the alphabet letters for 'coloured only' and 'white'. And so I spent 5 hours learning to drink from the 'for colour only' fountain and know that 'white' was not good. Of course when my father was not looking I drunk from the white, thinking that it was Sprite, or Ginger Ale! But it was just water.

So I have experienced it throughout my life. But, the way you deal with racism in America is by ignoring it, pretending it doesn't exist. In my research I became very angry with white men and women. It made me think and remember the things that happened to my father, to my mother, to my children. Having to explain to my son why he's being followed in the store. The race conversation with your child, I thought the hard conversation was going to be the sex conversation, but to tell your child that you are not liked because you are of a different skin colour is devastating. But you can't hold in the anger because if you hold it in then you become a part of it.

I don't how many white butlers where employed in the White House, but given the preponderance of the Negro population there, I wonder whether the White House was consciously or unconsciously institutionalizing a sense of servility amongst the Negros in the manner in which the population of the serving population was predominantly black.

I think so, yes. It wasn't until very recently that there were white butlers even allowed, that the concept of white servants even existed in the White house. It was a plantation.

Was the time in which the film was made, with Obama as president, a factor in getting the film made?

I think the movie wouldn't have had the impact if Obama had not been president because that's the period at the end of the sentence.

There's still a long way to go with prejudice and the so-called 'clash of generations' as we see in the film the relationship between father and son. What can the story of THE BUTLER teach the next generation? What kind of message does it leave for the future?

Hope. But we've got a long way to go. And also that there were heroes in a way that I don't know if I could ever be. I have two children and I definitely could take a bullet for those children, but I don't know if I could take a bullet or die to sit next to a white person or to eat with a white person or to vote. I don't know if I'm man enough to do that. I think that the message is, we need to find more heroes, we need to create more heroes. We have Afghanistan, we have a crazy Korean over there. We need to find heroes who are going to take these people out.

With other films of this kind you have a protagonist surrounded by such malice and yet they are able to find hope. With this film though, the people surrounding the main characters are good and they are able to find their path through that. Is this the material or something in yourself, that you found this change?

No, it was just a choice to reach a different audience to show that I'm a versatile director. I'm known for my edgy films and it was important for me to reach a PG, a PG-13 audience, as a filmmaker.

Did you have the feeling at any point that since the part of the son is so strong and he's fighting for civil rights, this might put a shadow over the part of the butler? Did you ever have a fear that that might happen and the story might center on the son rather than the butler?

No, I think there isn't a right or a wrong, I think they both served their country in their own way. You know, Cecil worked so hard for a better life for his son, that's all. But it wasn't good enough for his son, his son wanted better than that . When I finished the film, I showed my son the movie, and I don't care what anybody else thinks, all I care is what my kids think about the movie - I'm terrified of them, and so he said, "Yeah, dad, I liked the movie, the documentary footage was weak a little bit, but it was pretty good".

I was really happy, but then he went on to say "Do you realize how important this movie is? Do you realize every studio in Hollywood passed on this movie? Warner Brothers, Paramount, Sony, Lionsgate, Disney ... no one thought that this story should be made. But I went out and I raised the money for this film, and that's a movie in itself, and he said to me, "Dad, that's what you do. Now, if I see Superman or Spider-Man as a person of colour, then you are doing something." And I realized at that moment that it's no different to what the butler and his son were going through, and it's never going to be enough, ever, and that's life.

What would you say to anybody who's trying to get into the film industry the way you have?

I've never taken no for an answer. I came from extreme poverty; I've watched lots of my friend die in front of me as a child. As a teenager, I lost my father, brutally murdered during the eighties. Openly gay, I have watched and buried and held men dying of HIV, many, many lovers. That I'm not HIV positive, or dead from HIV, is a miracle, I've dodged that bullet; I've dodged death many times, I've had a heart attack because of drugs. I think that I don't take no for an answer. I think that coming from where I come from, it's built a wall of security and formidability and never taking no for an answer, and I think that if you embrace 'no' then you're doomed.

My question is about the legal problems with the title of the film, how did you feel about these problems? Did you consider changing the title? And how did you feel putting your own name into the title?

I also teach when I'm not directing, and I love teaching as much as I love directing, and I tell my students "never put your name in front of a film!" I don't pretend to be Quentin Tarantino, that's just not me. We were in a lawsuit with Warner Brothers and it had nothing to do with me, I think it was the Weinstein company and Warner Brothers and they chose this title for me, and so I had to go back to my students and tell them "I know, I know I said this, but this is the mistake, I didn't do this". I think people who don't know will think very well it's that, but I love the title.

I was furious when I got to Japan and I saw the title that they have, which is The Tears of the President's Butler. Wow! That's the title!? That's the title!? I wouldn't go with 'President's', I would go with 'The Tears of the Butler' - but you know, when you're in the middle of lawsuits and stuff and you're just trying to be a filmmaker, you just shut up and you take it. I do have to say, though, that when I was in front of the Ziegfield theatre in New York City and I saw my name up there, I was with my mother and she held me close and she cried. It made me feel good.

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