A moment with Forest Whitaker
ABOVE PHOTO: Forest Whitaker as White House butler Cecil Gaines in Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
The Academy Award wiinning actor talks about his role in “Lee Daniel’s The Butler” First question
This film simultaneously covers a large span of American history and tells a father-son story, as played by you and David Oyelowo. Tell us a little about that dynamic.
I think what Lee Daniels did with this film is pretty powerful because he dealt with the civil rights movement through the characters of me (Cecil) and my son (Louis). My son’s an activist first in college, and then working with Martin Luther King and eventually Malcolm X. It’s a broad scope of individuals in that particular movement. At the same time, you see me in the White House during those periods where decisions were being made behind the scenes with Presidents John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and so forth. They were shaping the face of civil and human rights in the country – and, in effect, the world.
It’s also a father-son story. My character represents the old school and the old guard. He is changing opinions by his mere presence in the White House, by his behavior and his acceptance. In a sense, I humanize the black community because the Presidents and staff have to deal with me on a human level.
Then you have my son addressing those same issues in the streets with the civil rights movement, through things like marches and sit-ins. The conflict is between us and our different generations. All I want is my son to be safe and have a good life; that’s what I think I’m doing in discouraging his activism. The growth for me is to realize that I deserve certain rights too, and it’s through my son that I come to understand that.
As White House butler, Cecil develops personal relationships with Presidents and First Ladies. What positive effect do you think that has in the bigger picture?
We have all these individuals, like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, who were in powerful positions preceding President Barack Obama. I don’t think Obama would be president without the movement of those others and people understanding, and accepting, that there were African Americans in positions of power.
These individuals shifted the public opinion, even if it was just subconsciously. I believe Obama was destined to take his position and I’m really happy he did. But destiny has its movement and things build up to a moment until, as Malcolm Gladwell would say, a tipping point occurs.
In this sense, I think the character of Cecil is a good example of an individual contributing towards shifting larger opinions on race. In the film, Kennedy’s tie and Johnson’s clip are the two gifts Cecil gets and keeps. Both of those Presidents shifted policy for civil rights in the country, with Kennedy starting first before being assassinated. Johnson was sometimes called a racist and was vilified for his position on Vietnam, but he also did things that were monumental for human rights in the US and getting laws passed through.
Cecil gets upset when his son says Sidney Poitier is just a black man acting like a white man wants him to. How do you interpret that?
Cecil gets angered because in his mind, Sidney Poitier is an activist and a trailblazer. Movies like A Patch of Blue and Brother John were impossible for black men to be in before he came along. The roads he paved are still being walked today; the work and access he created were unprecedented. When Cecil’s son argues that this man should be disrespected, Cecil wants to be cordial as a father, but it’s too much for him to bear.
That said, what Lee does with the film that’s really great is that he explores “Uncle Tom-ism.” My character’s son, Louis, looks at me in some ways as an Uncle Tom. In fact, he’s sometimes embarrassed of me. Martin Luther King tells him my position in the White House is in fact very important.
People like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Louis Armstrong were considered for a period of time as Uncle Toms. But before them, African American people didn’t perform in certain venues or go into certain rooms because they weren’t allowed. They were activists and treading roads that weren’t tread before for others to be able to walk through. If you go through a jungle and you’re using a machete to get past the vines in front of you, know that the person who chopped the vines down before you paved a road for you to move forward.
Tell us about working with all these other actors who were portraying US Presidents in the film.
It was fantastic because I was sort of the common link. That’s the thing about workers in the White House – it’s their house in a way. When I spoke with some of the real life butlers who had been employed there, they would say that they were there for years and would see presidents come and go, yet they would stay working behind the scenes.
While filming, it would be a new experience with each new actor playing a president. John Cusack plays a sort of mad Nixon. I was thrilled to work with him, as he’s a great actor. The scene where he’s in the middle of Watergate, playing the tapes over and over, was exciting to do. James Marsden brought relaxation and comfort to the Kennedy role. I loved working with him. His character is very linked to mine. I’d worked with Robin Williams before. I enjoyed his stillness and simplicity in the role of Eisenhower. It was very delicate. He did a beautiful job of portraying pain and contemplation.
This is Oprah’s return to acting. What about this film in particular do you think convinced her to come back?
She had a relationship with Lee of course from producing Precious and trusted him as a filmmaker. She and I have had a long relationship and had wanted to work together for a while. I think mainly though, what the story is telling historically and showing America through those eyes was important to her. I also think she was interested in exploring family and love.
One thing that our characters have as husband and wife throughout the film was a deep bond of love through all the strains, through her character’s alcoholism, and all else. I think as an artist she must have been intrigued by this character because it’s powerful and complex, and she does an amazing job. I’m really happy I got to do the film with her – I can’t imagine having done it with anyone else.
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