Love of family and country is central in ‘The Butler’

Forest Whitaker and Lee Daniels can understand how people may think “The Butler” is a movie about a butler, but they hope audiences can look beyond the title.

“It really is a father and son story, and the father happens to be a butler,” Daniels, the director known for his Oscar-winning film “Precious,” said during a visit to Atlanta. “This is really a story about a man serving his country.”

The story, inspired by a 2008 Washington Post article profiling White House butler Eugene Allen, tells the fictional tale of Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), born in the segregated South. In the film, which opens this week, after learning hard lessons while working in the cotton fields of Macon, Gaines grows up to become a White House butler who serves through seven presidential administrations from 1957 through 1986.

Though the position allows Gaines to forge a middle-class existence for his wife and two sons, it is not without personal loss. The job creates a rift between Gaines and his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), who is left at home, mostly alone, to raise two boys. It also intensifies the conflict with his anti-establishment older son (David Oyelowo).

» VIDEO: Co-star Oprah Winfrey talks about the film | Lee Daniels' story

All the family drama unfolds with the racial and political upheaval of the times as a backdrop, including the sit-ins and boycotts of the civil rights movement, the assassinations of national leaders, Watergate, the rise of the Black Panther Party and the Vietnam War.

Whitaker faced the task of understanding these moments in history, feeling it inside his core and aging 60 years in a single film. “I learned a lot about the process of aging,” said Whitaker, who won the best actor Oscar for the 2006 film “The Last King of Scotland.” “When you see me looking old, I’m carrying the weight of all those experiences. When you shed some of them, you feel younger.”

Daniels was terrified by the amount of time and history he had to cover in the film. “I realized the accuracy had to be completely on point. I owed it to my parents and grandparents and their grandparents to be as accurate as I could when depicting it, which really frustrated me,” he said.

While the cast of actors portraying incoming presidents — from Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower to Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan (and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan) — could easily overshadow the story being told, Daniels sought balance by making sure the story always represented one perspective — that of the African-Americans living through it.

» PHOTOS: Stars attend the movie's premiere

“We should be proud of telling stories about a butler’s experience from the lens of African-Americans,” said Daniels, addressing criticism that he has brought forth another movie featuring blacks as domestics. “The disconnect is that those (other) stories have been told from the lens of the white man or woman and the white person is the hero helping the black person,” he said. “See the movie, then judge.”

Gaines, said Whitaker, shows there are many ways to move things forward and to stand up for a good living and a good quality of life. Gaines is not a man who has had an easy life, but he seeks and finds joy through his love of his work and his family, and ultimately through reconciliation with his son.

“I think that is the message that works on every level,” Whitaker said. “There is healing in love.”

»THE REVIEW: Occasionally moving, but too much soap opera

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