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Q&A: 'Lee Daniels' The Butler' director Lee Daniels

August 13, 2013|Matt Pais, @mattpais | RedEye movie critic

Talking about his drama “Lee Daniels' The Butler,” in which Forest Whitaker plays a fictionalized version of a real butler who worked in the White House for more than three decades, the titular director says, “I did this movie because I needed to understand why it was that I get followed in stores.”

However, it must be noted that the movie opening Friday mentions a wide variety of key moments in the civil rights movement without providing detail on them--or looking at why race relations haven’t advanced farther amid all the other progress in the modern era. At the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the 53-year-old, Oscar-nominated filmmaker (“Precious”) talked about directing Oprah (who plays the butler’s wife), balancing history and entertainment and addressing current problems on screen.

What goes through your head as you direct probably the second most powerful woman in the world?
What do you think?

I haven’t done it.
[Laughs] Well, it’s probably what you think … It was intimidating. The beginning was very weird. Because though she had produced me for “Precious” and we were friends and we were looking for something to work [on] together, she’s a very powerful person. Strong. And so it was intimidating in the beginning, and then I realized, “Either I can direct her, or I can not direct her.”

Were there a few times early on where you said gently, “If you could do that again … please …”
No, I just kept saying, “It sucks. I don’t believe you. Do it again.”

You really said that?
Oh, yeah. Many times.

What did she say?
She was there to help. I couldn’t treat her any differently than I treated any other actor. It would have made me look weird in front of the other actors. I can’t not be mean.

If I tried to do that to her, she’d probably pay to have me killed. I’m not a director.
[Laughs] No, I’d say, “That sucks; let’s try that again.” Or “Give me half of that.” Or less. But what was great about her was that—because it was all about me; it wasn’t about her, it was about me and what I thought—once I got over that she was open. She was like, “What do you want me to do?” I think that’s a sign of a great artist, an actor, is when they say, “Yes, sir, what would you like?” They want to make you happy because they know ultimately this is my vision. It was magical. At night I would go, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m directing Oprah! [Laughs] What is going on in my life?!”

Harry Lennix recently questioned the treatment of reality in “The Butler.” What do you think the balance is when it comes to telling important stories that are a part of our history while at the same time acknowledging the way that things are today?
I don’t know who Harry Lennix is. So who is that?

Have you not heard about this?

I’ll quote him: “[Daniels] bastardizes history for a horrible end and purpose.” He’s an actor, by the way. He’s in “Man of Steel” just to name one. “So what if [Eugene Allen] was a servant in the White House? That’s incidental. I mean, God bless the man, but in an effort to make it seem somehow profound they bastardized the actual history of the man … Can we move to 2013? When our concerns are not about what happened to some servants with the help of some white people … let’s talk about today.”
Well, now I know who Harry Lennix is. [Laughs] Hmm. He’s an actor? Did he want to come see me for the movie or something and I wouldn’t see him?

I don’t believe so. I think he read the script and considered it and decided not to move forward.
Well, he couldn’t have been considered if I don’t know who he is. That’s first. But I think that I’ve touched the hearts of many, many butlers. Many, many, many civil rights leaders. I’ve touched the heart  of my mom, who marched with Martin Luther King. And people that I respect. And I know that we’ve got a long way to go. And I did this movie because I needed to understand why it was that I get followed in stores … I go to Saks, I’m followed.

By employees that think you’re up to something?
Yeah! And I can’t get a taxi in New York City. Sometimes I have an assistant who’s white just so that I can get a taxi half the time.

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