Lee Daniels’ The Butler, in which Oprah Winfrey stars as the main character’s wife, is as much about race-relations in America as it is about family.
Cecil Gaines is an African-American man born to sharecroppers who serves as a butler in the White House for more than 30 years. Winfrey plays Gaines’ wife. Their son, a young man who takes an active role in the civil rights movement, is ashamed by what he considers an embarrassing career path for his father.
The movie, inspired by former White House butler Eugene Allen, is about two different ways to protest, Winfrey said.
“The butler in his own way, hanging in there, maintaining the dignity, the hard work, the perseverance that multitudes of African-American families have shown over the years in spite of the face of racism and discrimination…and then the son as a freedom writer is another way,” Winfrey said during a recent interview with Morning Joe.
The film’s director, Lee Daniels, said adolescents don’t understand why people are treated certain ways, but the film explains why.
“I did the movie because it was a father-son love story, and that transcends race; it’s universal,” Daniels said during the interview. “It really was a love story with the civil rights movement in the backdrop.”
The release of the film is even more topical considering earlier this week, a judge ruled that police officers in New York City violated citizens’ constitutional rights by targeting mostly minority residents for millions of random stops, questioning, and searches using the stop-and-frisk policy. The judge in her ruling referenced the case of Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed last year in Sanford, Fla.
“Trayvon is the Emmett Till of our era,” said Winfrey, referencing a 14-year-old African-American boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after reportedly flirting with a white woman.
Since the ruling many parents–including Daniels–have spoken with their African-American children about race in America.
“It’s an embarrassing conversation to have. To be frank, I’d rather have the birds and the bees conversation. That’s an easier conversation to explain why it is that you can’t get a taxi and yet your neighbors that are right in front of you in the same soccer outfit in the rain can get a taxi and you can’t,” Daniels said.
In an interview last week with Entertainment Tonight, Winfrey shared a story about her trip to Switzerland and visiting a boutique where a sales clerk told her a high-end purse was too expensive for her. Winfrey has since apologized and said “racism doesn’t show up” for her.
(Watch the second part of Morning Joe’s interview with Winfrey):