BY Alex Gibson
It was 1952 – the closing of the Truman administration – when Eugene Allen first got a job at the White House. Over the next three decades, he would see seven more presidents in office including Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ, Nixon, and Reagan.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler was inspired by Allen’s life. The film tells the story of Cecil Gaines, a longtime White House butler who, like Allen, was gifted one of JFK’s ties by Jackie Kennedy, invited to a state dinner by Nancy Reagan, and witnessed the height of the Civil Rights Movement from the corner of the Oval Office. In the film, Cecil Gaines’ experiences are juxtaposed with those of his son, Louis, who sees the Movement from quite a different perspective.
As Cecil marches, white gloved, through the White House hallways, Louis joins the Civil Right Movement, first staging sit-ins in Southern diners and eventually joining the Black Panther Party. The father and son’s conflicting political views cause immeasurable tension in the family, though they both hope fervently for a better future.
From the acclaimed director of Precious, Lee Daniels’ The Butler opens August 16 and stars Forrest Whittaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., David Oyelowo, Lenny Kravitz, Yaya Alafia, and an ensemble of Hollywood’s most talents actors. Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with some of the creative minds behind the film. At the swanky Rittenhouse Hotel, I spoke with director Lee Daniels and Oscar-Winner Cuba Gooding Jr.
I also sat down with Yaya Alafia, who plays activist Carol Hammie in the film. Though hers may not yet be a household name, she has had an accomplished career. She starred in her first film, Take the Lead, in 2006 with Antonio Banderas and Alfre Woodard before moving on to America’s Next Top Model, Ugly Betty, and The Kids are All Right, among other stage, TV, and film titles. In addition to the exemplary cast for Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Alafia has worked with a long list of acclaimed actors. She said that her most profound experience was on stage in The First Breeze of Summer along side veteran Leslie Uggams. “There have been other experiences where it has just been a matter of observing, just sitting back listening to stories, seeing how the vibrancy of theater acting translates to film,” Alafia continued. “On the set of Honeydripper, Charles ‘Rock’ Dutton and Danny Glover were such storytellers…I’ve learned so much from all these different people.”
Following my interview with Alafia, I moved upstairs and, along with Le Anne Lindsay of “Tinsel & Tine” and Thomasena Farrar of “MusicMoviesThoughts,” sat down with Daniels, Gooding Jr., and Alafia. Though it was the end of a long day of interviews, all three were gregarious and energetic in answering our questions.
They told us about the emotional atmosphere on set. Daniels described filming the scene in which students stage a sit in and are harassed by townspeople to the point when Carol is spit on by a local white woman. “Tears, lots of tears…I remember when we did it with Yaya. I’m really protective of the actors and I just wigged out and I said ‘Get the spit off her, guys.’ I couldn’t even come up to her…because I knew what she was feeling and when she could slowly pull away from that space, she said ‘It was the stench of the spit that most disturbed me.’”
There were lighter parts of filming as well. Gooding Jr. remembered a token Lee Daniels moment when describing a scene in which Lenny Kravitz’s character’s parrot interrupts their poker night: “The scene when we’re playing the cards, he’s like ‘I need a parrot!’…And in the movie, it’s not as offensive as it was to film it. The sound look[ed] like he’s going to have a heart attack…”
For some members of the cast, The Butler was a reunion. Both Mariah Carey (who has a cameo in the beginning of the film) and Lenny Kravitz were in Precious. This was also Cuba Gooding Jr.’s second Lee Daniels film; the pair made Shadowboxer together in 2005. About working together again, Daniels said, “Once the actor knows me, knows what to expect, knows my temperament, they have been de-virginized, and so for Cuba, he’s so humble…and so it was comforting. It was like a pair of old socks with holes in them. That’s how it felt for me.”
Gooding Jr. likewise expressed his admiration for Daniels: “Lee has got that rare ability to find the truth, the real truth of the moment…he’s got a sharper eye. He’s got as sharp an eye as the directors I respect like James L Brooks and Cameron Crowe and Ridley Scott. I mean, these men see everything…every detail and emotion, present or not. And they question everything, even their own judgment they question and they allow you to question and that’s all you want as an actor…a director to not only allow you to question but when you find a new question, he asks it with you or he helps answer it with you.” Daniels later added, about his craft, “I think that’s what makes great art…we question ourselves. We wanna be better. How do we make it better? Is that good? Is that good enough? It’s never good enough.”
Lee Daniels’ The Butler, however, was a uniquely resonant film. The struggle for Civil Rights is one close to the filmmakers’ hearts. Daniels said:
“…to me, what is American history is the Civil Rights movement. It is the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement is American History. From the time that they that signed that paper in 1776 and had slaves here to Obama’s election…I know that as a parent what you can die for. I can die for my son. I can die for my daughter. I know I can. I can take the bullet. I don’t know that I could do what they did, which was take a bullet for an invisible cause or a possibility. These are heroes – heroes for us.”
Gooding Jr. and Alafia were also able to connect to Lee Daniels’ The Butler on a personal level. Cuba described his rise from an impoverished upbringing and experiences with racism in California: “There were lot of elements that, not just Cecil, but my character, Lenny’s character, went through in this movie that I totally identified with…I lived in this place called Victorville CA…I loved the people there, but there was a big KKK factor out there. There were a lot of ‘niggers’ thrown around…And when you grow up, you realize how abusive that might have been…”
Likewise, Alafia’s research for the role of activist Carol Hammie began early in her childhood: “My parents were very involved and I grew up hearing their stories. My father…[was] a bodyguard for Stokely Carmichael, my mother was a secretary for the Panthers…I was lucky that I didn’t have to dig very deep or go very far to have some inspiration.”
The stories of Louis and Cecil Gaines are nothing if not inspirational. The characters may not be one hundred percent real, but the experiences were. For anyone, like myself, who has heard stories of his or her grandparents denied basic liberties because of race, Lee Daniels’ The Butler lends a new perspective on the trials of civil rights activists and the progress that has been made.
When I spoke of the impact the film had on me, Daniels commented that his son had a similar reaction to the film and thanked his father for making it. Daniels called the accolade “exciting.” Alafia went further to say, “I hope that happens for a lot, especially…for people younger than you are, you know high school, [who] don’t really know anything about our history…This is the medium that we are reaching people through and educating people…For people who know nothing, it’s at least an introduction, at least a kind of a reminder of one of the places we’ve come from or passed through, rather.” When asked what she hopes audience will take away from the film, Alafia said “The struggle continues…hopefully it is more encouragement than complacency.”
Lee Daniels’ The Butler opens August 16 nationwide.
[Pictured above – Cuba Gooding Jr., Yaya Alafia, and Lee Daniels on the red carpet at the Kimmel Center / Bottom Row: Cuba Gooding Jr. and Yaya Alafia. Top Row: Lee Daniels, PFS’s Alex Gibson, Le Anne Lindsey of “Tinsel & Tine,” and Thomasena Farrar of “MusicMoviesThoughts”]
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