When Lee Daniels first began filming “The Butler” in September 2012, he shut out the outside world. When he emerged he found there was a narrative that was dominating the national conversation about race and justice that is now shaping the conversation around his film.
“When I’m making a movie, I’m in a cocoon. I’m in a bubble, and I don’t like leaving that bubble for anything,” Daniels told MSNBC’s Martin Bashir in an interview that aired Friday. “When I came out of that bubble, Trayvon Martin happened. I had no idea that Trayvon Martin was happening or happened…I also thought about the scene with Lyndon Johnson when he passes that incredible voting rights bill, and I come out and the Supreme Court has done what they’ve done? You know…I wonder.”
“The Butler,” opening Friday nationwide, is based on the life of Eugene Allen, a butler who worked in the White House for more than three decades, and presents milestones of the civil rights movement through the lens of a public servant during one of the nation’s most important periods.
But while the film documents the historic progress the country made for civil rights, the reality in 2013 begs the question, “How far have we really come?” in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act, and the continuing racist animus that surrounds the presidency of Barack Obama.
“I think we’ve come enormously far. But my son doesn’t seem to feel so,” Daniels said, who asked his son after watching the film whether or not he felt “The Butler” represented an important step in filmmaking for Black people. ”He was like, ‘No. It’s not important until I see myself as Spider-Man,’” Daniels recalled. “I’m thinking, ‘It’s no different than what it was with Cecil and Louis, our two leads.’”
Daniels said he feels that “The Butler” can and does speak to various generations, and that the conversation the film ignites about class goes beyond just race—it’s about those who serve in every walk of life in America. ”The butler stands for every servant that serves America. The butler is you—you’re serving America. The butler is me—I’m serving America through my cinema. And he happens to be looked down on. That’s how we look at class, how we address class in America.”
As for the narrative moving forward, Daniels hopes his audience can walk away feeling inspired to continue the conversation about class and justice. “We need more heroes,” he said. “We need more people that are willing to put their lives on the line for freedom.”