Director Lee Daniels on The Butler: “I don’t care what anyone says about the film”

The director knew his work was done after his 90-year-old cousin, the first African American paediatric surgeon, was moved to tears by the movie

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What was going through Lee Daniels’ head as he got star after star signing up for his epic biopic, The Butler? “Is this really happening? Is this going to be a joke? Am I going to be laughed out of Hollywood?” 

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The finished product certainly isn’t a joke, topping the US box office for three weeks when it was released in the States back in August. And with a line-up including Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams, Vanessa Redgrave, John Cusack, Cuba Gooding Jr, Lenny Kravitz and many, many more, it’s sure to hold a certain sway over UK cinema-goers. 

But while all the famous faces help Daniels bring in an audience, they come with a danger of distracting from the movie itself and as director he had to work hard “losing the Jane Fonda of it all. Losing the Robin Williams of it all, the Vanessa Redgrave of it all, the John Cusack of it all.

“It’s hard! I hope it worked – at least in America it did. I haven’t been here yet to find out what you all think.”

The film follows the story of Cecil Gaines – a presidential butler based on real-life Eugene Allen who worked in the White House over a 34-year period. But while illustrious actors portray a string of American presidents, from Eisenhower to Reagan, Barack Obama is missing, his tenure conveyed using archive footage. 

“We wanted him in the movie and we toyed with it,” admits Daniels, “but I didn’t have the nerve to ask so there you go. Got him on TV instead.” 

Nevertheless, the 53-year-old director – best known for 2009’s Oscar-winning Precious – calls The Butler the proudest moment of his career, thanks to the reaction of a 90-year-old cousin living in Hawaii.

“He was the first African American paediatric surgeon and he had to go away to Germany because he wasn’t allowed to study medicine in the United States. He held me in his arms and he cried and said, ‘Thank you for telling my story – I never thought I would see my story told.’

“I really don’t care what anyone says at this point, critics or you. He lived it, it’s his story and so many of my ancestors’ stories, and for him to be touched like that – that was the proudest moment of my life.” 

The Butler is released in UK cinemas nationwide on Friday 15 November


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