Q&A: 7 Minutes With ‘The Butler’ Director Lee Daniels

On a black president, artistic obligation and the film's success

lee daniels at the golden globesWe had seven minutes with Lee Daniels. As we spoke, his film, The Butler starring Oprah Winfrey and Forrest Whitaker was the No. 1 movie in America. We were taping for TV One’s Our World with Black Enterprise. His phone went off once, and his publicist was ready. To. Go.

Here it is:

BlackEnterprise.com: I wanted to discuss our black president for a moment.

Is he black?

BlackEnterprise.com: Yeah, actually, I think he is. [Laughs.]

Oh OK. If you say he is. [Mr. Daniels gestured toward a camera taping this interview.] Yes he is. He’s soo black. I’m just joking Mr. Obama. President Obama. You the man! [Laughs.]

BlackEnterprise.com: I thought it was sort of ironic that this film had a black director with this subject matter and apparently couldn’t get made. But I also am interested in this real beauty that with this president in office, this story actually happened. What was your takeaway?

That America is beautiful. Through all the atrocities that we’ve been through as African Americans we still prevailed. God is good. And America is beautiful.

BlackEnterprise.com: Do you think you got that across in the film?

I think I did. I think American history is the Civil Rights movement. From the time they created America they had slaves. It’s been an issue.

BlackEnterprise.com: This film was wildly successful and I’m curious if it hadn’t made so much money — I think $25 million was the number being thrown out there — if you’d still be as satisfied with the project and have this very positive, reflective attitude about the work.

I did a movie right before this that supposedly made $567,000 that was called ‘The Paperboy.’ I’m as proud of ‘The Paperboy’ as I am of The Butler. And I am as proud of a movie I did called ‘Shadowboxer’ as I am of ‘Precious.’ They’re all parts of me. They’re all my children. Of course, you want the movie to make money because that means that people are seeing the movie. But I think that once I leave that edit room, I’m proud. It’s like having a kid. You know, how are you gonna call your kid ugly?

BlackEnterprise.com: You’ve been vocal about issues concerning the gay community, including black men not being able to come out, and marriage equality. There’s clearly an American appetite I think, for movies about race, or that are at least racial — ‘The Help’ comes to mind. Are we ready for films that are going to bring some of these gay issues to the fore? And are you the person to do it?

I don’t know that the country is ready to embrace homosexuality. At least the black community isn’t ready to embrace it. We’ve got a lot of growing and accepting to do. There are a lot of people who need to come out of the closet and speak up to let kids know that it’s OK to be who you are.

Did that answer your question?

BlackEnterprise.com: Well, kind of.

Well, I want to make sure I answer your question because if I didn’t then I didn’t do my job. [Laughs.]

BlackEnterprise.com: I think my question is do you feel that you have an obligation to, as an artist, make sure that we can have an honest dialogue about what matters?

Well, I’m not a politician. I just live in the truth. I’m very proud of who I am right now. I’ve overcome many obstacles in my life — I’ve overcome drugs, I’ve overcome deaths in the eighties from HIV. I think we have a long way to go. I don’t know that I have an obligation to anybody but my kids. I have an obligation as an American citizen to do the right thing and be a role model for my kids and that’s the best thing I can do. Sometimes my art is offensive. The truth can also be offensive to people.

BlackEnterprise.com: President Reagan famously opposed sanctions against South Africa and it was widely thought of as an endorsement of apartheid. In the film, President Reagan in talking to Cecil, kind of wonders aloud if he’s going to be on the wrong side of history. Is that where institutions like the black church are headed?

That is a very loaded question. Because as minorities we have it hard. It’s hard to walk out of the door every day as a black man. For black men and women to embrace yet another social issue, is even harder and they’re embarrassed by it. And so they say no to it. And saying no is not a good thing because you’re not living your truth.

ACROSS THE WEB
  • Jessica C.

    Lee Daniels did a great job with “The Butler.” This movie gave audiences the chance to look inside the White House at a time that was crucial for American history, for African American history. I admire how Daniels states that his obligation is to his children, to be a positive role model, and to his country, to be an upstanding citizen. In my opinion, the movie and actors deserve an Oscar.

  • Roklan

    Of course it’s getting Oscar Buzz. Who doesn’t love the onslaught of movies about subservient black people? The Help, The Butler… this list goes on and on. And don’t forget “precious” the story that destroys any sense that black moms needing welfare and other government programs being decent people.