Even as the critically-acclaimed film, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” hits theaters, the director and members of its superstar cast paused to bitterly reflect on recent events they say proves racism is still very much alive in the good old U.S.A.
“I can’t believe I’m having this conversation in 2013,” Daniels, 53, said. “When we made this film, Trayvon Martin hadn’t happened…but it shows that any white man can get away with killing a black man and that’s crazy.”
George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain for a housing complex in Sanford, Florida, shot Trayvon Martin to death in 2012. Zimmerman, 28, claimed that he shot the unarmed 17-year-old in self-defense despite initiating a confrontation with Trayvon as the young man returned to his father’s house after buying a bag of skittles from a nearby grocery store. Last month, a jury acquitted Zimmerman of murdering Trayvon.
This week, Daniels’ latest film, arrives in theaters. The movie tells the true story of Eugene Allen, a black butler who went to serve at the White House in 1952, prior to the civil rights movement.
When he left the White House in 1986, many of the country’s first families counted Allen as a favorite among all presidential employees. He died in Washington in 2010 at the age of 90.
Daniels said America remains filled with people who only view blacks as targets or, at the least, troublesome individuals. He recounted a personal incident that threatened to spoil an otherwise wonderful night in Los Angeles following the 2002 Academy Awards where actress Halle Berry won an Oscar for her performance in the Daniels’ produced, “Monster’s Ball.”
After the ceremony, the director drove toward home but police pulled him over and slammed Daniels against the side of his late model Mercedes Benz.
“It’s what happens. We choose to ignore that white Americans will never be able to understand [African Americans],” Daniels said, regarding racial profiling.
Forest Whitaker, who portrays the film’s main character, recently experienced the unpleasantness of randomly being stopped and frisked at a food market in New York.
In an interview with journalist Gayle King for Oprah.com, Whitaker, 52, said everyone must stand together if America is to be free of racism.
“I’m hoping that people will recognize that they need to stand up and have their voices heard,” Whitaker said. “I think that this movie allows you to see different people reaching for the things they believe.”
Talk show queen Oprah Winfrey portrays Gloria Gaines, the butler’s wife, in the film. She said it’s difficult to get audiences of all races and backgrounds motivated to see a movie like “The Butler” because race makes people uncomfortable.
While the film prominently notes the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Daniels lamented the recent legislation that overturned the bill. “They are saying now, that if my grandmother doesn’t show identification at the polls, she cannot vote,” Daniels said.
The two-hour and 11-minute movie features a who’s who of Hollywood A-listers including, Winfrey, Whitaker, Terrence Howard, Robin Williams, John Cusack and James Marsden. Despite the star power, there remains one individual Daniels said he desperately wanted to cast in the film— President Barack Obama.
“I was too afraid to ask President Obama to be in this movie. I think that he was in the middle of something called the election,” Daniels said. “It would have been weird if I had somebody playing Obama. I couldn’t have anybody playing Obama except Obama.”
The film opens at the AMC Loews White Marsh 16 in Baltimore and at select theaters around the county.