Servant of the People: “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” Puts History in Perspective

By Stan Washington Senior Writer | 8/16/2013, 6 a.m.
In addition to raising money for "The Butler", Lee Daniels is also working with his largest and most noted cast in his film career. Pictured above are lead actors Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.

With a universal father-son love story set against the backdrop of America’s turbulent political landscape of the 20th century, the director of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” knew he had more than just another film project on his hands.

“After I read the initial script by Danny Strong, it was clear that this was our black Forest Gump,” Lee Daniels told a group of reporters at the National Association of Black Journalists annual convention. “It was our history. It was America’s history. To me America’s history is the civil rights movement and that is what seduced me to do this material.”

The film is inspired by the 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election” by award-winning journalist Wil Haygood, who had been covering the presidential campaign of Barack Obama.

“I told my editor that I thought Obama was going to win and that I wanted to do a profile on someone who had lived through segregation,” Haygood said during the press conference, which also featured Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker who portrays Cecil Gaines, the butler. 

After many phones calls, Haygood’s search ended right under his nose in the nation’s capitol in the form of Eugene Allen, an 89-year-old former White House butler who had served seven presidential administrations between 1957 to 1986.

In addition to raising money for the project, Daniels is also working with his largest and most noted cast in his film career. 

The film’s leading lady is TV mogul Oprah Winfrey, who returns to the big screen after a long absence. Daniels’ concerns about whether the audience would see beyond Oprah’s mega-persona was eased as Winfrey turned in a strong performance as the loving, complex and sometimes sassy wife and mother Gloria Gaines.

Rounding out a stellar cast are: David Oyelowo, Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Yaya Alafia, Mariah Carey, Vanessa Redgrave, Lenny Kravitz, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Jane Fonda, John Cusack, James Marsden and Oscar winner Robin Williams.

The film opens in 1926 where the young Gaines and his family are sharecroppers in the cotton fields of Macon, Ga. Gaines experiences the horrors of white oppression as one of the sons of the landlord repeatedly rapes his mother (Mariah Carey) at will and then fatally shoots his father in the head for daring to question his behavior.

Following his father’s death and his mother’s mental breakdown, Cecil is moved from the fields into the main house to be trained as a house servant. It is here where Cecil’s long journey to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. begins. As he becomes a young man, Cecil decides it’s time to leave the plantation. But life outside the plantation is a lot harder than he anticipated.

Finding work is not easy, but he eventually ends up as a waiter in an upscale hotel. His mentor (Clarence Williams III) urges him to take a job at a fancier hotel in Washington D.C. It is there he is spotted by a White House official, who hires him for the job where he will work for the next four decades.