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EXCLUSIVE: Lee Daniels on Directing Oprah, and Why Black Women Will Appreciate 'The Butler'

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Lee Daniels
Photo Credit: Steve Granitz/ Getty

Lee Daniels has a reputation in Hollywood. After producing films like The Woodsman and Monster’s Ball (for which Halle Berry won her Academy Award) and directing Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, Daniels clearly isn’t afraid to push the envelope. In the past, he’s been accused of pushing too hard but in his latest film, Lee Daniels' The Butler (in theaters Friday, August 16) he knows exactly when to drive the momentum of the film and discovers that there is indeed power in holding back.

We caught up with the director to find out what it was like telling Oprah what to do, the controversy over the film’s title and why Black women should appreciate his latest creation.

ESSENCE.com: Nobody tells Oprah what to do! So how did you approach her as a director?
Lee Daniels: She is who she is—authoritative, powerful, and intelligent. She comes in with a very powerful presence. So yes, it was intimidating in the beginning but when she wasn’t doing it right, I had to tell her to do it again until it was right. The onus was on me to take charge and when I did, she became vulnerable, open and fragile and that’s when I found myself becoming protective of her. It was my job to take care of her because she let her guard down. And what happens on screen as a result is just beautiful. In Hollywood, we don’t see women Black women of a certain age with such a complicated story line. I love this character so much.

ESSENCE.com: The other major woman in the Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker) character’s life is his mother. You cast Mariah Carey in that role. Tell me why?
Daniels: She’s my very good friend and I like working with friends. When you work with me it’s not work. It’s really therapeutic because we talk about our problems, passions, good food, and good sex. To get up on that screen, I have to know everything about you and you will know everything about me. It lets them feel free enough to do what they do on stage. The wall is down and so Mariah is like my little sister. I thought where else can I take her after Precious? I said, get her in some rags and put her in the cotton fields! As soon as I yelled cut for the day, she’d put them stilettos on and become Mariah again, walking through the cotton fields in 7-inch heels. Love her!

ESSENCE.com: Did you grow up seeing any of the imagery about the segregated South that you captured in the film?
Daniels: I drank from colored water fountains and from the White water fountain just to see what it was like when I was a kid. What shocks me is that these kids today don’t realize that this happened in many of our lifetimes. 
 
ESSENCE.com: Why did you take on this film?
Daniels: I did this movie because it’s a father and son story. For me, the backdrop was the Civil Rights Movement and I didn’t realize until we did the bus scene that God had a bigger plan. You know most times when I do a film it starts out with one idea and ends up not being what I thought it was going to be. I hope this movie rips the scab off and allows us all to look deeply into the heart of racism in a way that we have never done before.

ESSENCE.com: There was a lot of controversy around the film’s title. Warner Bros. exercised their right to protect the use of the title The Butler, which is a 1916 silent film under their archives. But The Weinstein Company appealed and received confirmation just a few weeks ago allowing the use of the alternative title Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Did any of this matter to you?
Daniels: When I’m making a film, I’m in a bubble. I’m pregnant with this child. I can’t have anything disturb the making of the baby, so when I give birth to whatever film I am working on, I’m usually in trouble with my family because I’ve been disconnected for so long. I didn’t know about all of this until recently. People may think, who is this guy to put his name in the movie title? I’m not Tyler Perry and I don’t claim to be. Right now, I don’t feel good about it. I should be happy, but for some reason it just doesn’t feel right. My mission is to let Black kids know that their dreams can happen. I want filmmakers to know that they can do this too and I don’t like what Lee Daniels’ The Butler says to those kids. I am really humble and sensitive about my work.

ESSENCE.com: Why should Black women see The Butler?
Daniels: I love Black women. I live for them. They are everything to me. I’m obsessed with them. They are sophisticated, resilient and smarter than me. In all of my movies I show those complications whether it’s in a very sick way like I did in Precious or in a different way with Gloria (played by Oprah Winfrey) in The Butler. I try to show complicated African-American women and sometimes I’m ridiculed for it but that’s part of being an artist. I’m ok with it. You’re not going to like all my movies and I don’t expect you to. I am however going to make you think—that is my job as a filmmaker. Love me, hate me, but you’re going to think after leaving a Lee Daniels film.
 
Lee Daniels’ The Butler stars Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Terrence Howard.

Filed Under: Celebrity Spotlight
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