Anghus Houvouras is baffled by director Lee Daniels’ recent comments in promotion of his new film The Butler…
I’ll never pretend to be any kind of expert on the subject of racial diversity in Hollywood. However, there’s been a slew of comments recently from director Lee Daniels about his new film that I found so obtuse and baffling that I thought it warranted examination.
Entertainment Weekly ran a series of eight stills from movie to promote the upcoming release of what is now referred to as Lee Daniels’ The Butler. This film is fast becoming a sideshow. First there was the battle over the title of the movie between The Weinstein Company and Warner Bros. which fast became the most ludicrous tango in recent memory. The solution was to tack the director’s name on the front of the film and make it look that much more pretentious on Oscar ballot cards.
Then with the release of the stills to Entertainment Weekly, Daniels made some statements which border on the ludicrous. From the article:
“There were a lot of attention-grabbing choices of actors to play famous politicians in The Butler, but John Cusack as Richard Nixon might be the oddest. When casting the presidents and their wives, Daniels gave consideration to big names out of necessity. ‘We had to finance it through bringing in names that meant something overseas,’ says the director. ‘It’s a very sad testament that Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker can’t greenlight a film.”’
I audibly laughed at that quote thinking at first I had misread it. My first thoughts immediately went to those embarrassing episodes last year when George Lucas was out promoting Red Tails and declared that Hollywood was not interested in an action movie with an all black cast. He left out a key adjective: the word terrible.
Yes George, Hollywood studios are not interested in a terrible action movie with an all black cast. I cringed a lot listening to this flannel shirt wearing icon mumble out his poorly constructed theories of race in Hollywood. For instance, when he said this:
“I realize that by accident I’ve now put the black film community at risk.”
Yes George. The entire black film community hinged on whether or not Red Tails was a success. Is there an appropriate font for sarcasm? Can you imagine if any of that were actually true? If the entire future of black film hinged on Red Tails? As if you had one chip on the table left and that was the hand you played? I’m not sure if the right word is ‘audacity’, ‘gall’, or ‘balls’. For someone with so many years under his belt, Lucas comes across like someone woefully out of touch with the very industry he helped shape.
Lee Daniels isn’t quite the the detached man-child that George Lucas has become. And I’m betting his film is a hell of a lot better than Red Tails. He’s a director out there promoting his work for a movie that has major award aspirations. And while nothing he said was as patently idiotic or offensive as George Lucas, I kept coming back to that quote:
”It’s a very sad testament that Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker can’t greenlight a film.”
Does Lee Daniels really believe this? I love Forest Whitaker, but do you think the studios are lining up to finance movies for the star of Ghost Dog and Vantage Point? Really Lee? You’re shocked to find out studios aren’t reaching deep into their pockets to finance a movie featuring the star of The Beloved? For God’s sake you have Oprah in your movie. Billionaire Oprah Winfrey who could have financed the entire production without moving a decimal point in her net worth?
It’s not a ‘sad testament’ that Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey can’t get a film a greenlight. It’s an economic decision based on the obvious: neither of these two actors are a significant box office draw, and as a filmmaker Lee Daniels exists in a time where studios are averse to risk. The Butler is a very American story in a time where international box office has become a mandate to profitability. I suppose you could argue if that is ‘a sad testament’. Apparently Lee Daniels exists in a world where he can get The Butler made outside of the studio system. Shouldn’t he consider that to be something of an improvement, given that there was a time when films made outside the studio system were a difficult if not impossible proposition? But hey, Lee wants to play that ever so subtle race card to help promote the movie. I understand that notion in theory. It’s a very Weinstein Company thing to say. Like all Weinstein Oscar hopefuls, there’s an attempt to play the movie as an underdog. Position it not as a front runner but a scrappy hopeful. Preach about being an outsider and always lead with defense. Daniels’ rambling about no studio wanting to finance a Forest Whitaker movie seems to be simultaneous race bait and Oscar bait. And i find that fascinating. Just like George Lucas with Red Tails, poking people with a stick declaring “THEY didn’t want to make this movie.”
Then he does something even more baffling. From the very same snippet in the most threadbare of pieces (is there anything else in Entertainment Weekly?):
“When casting the presidents and their wives, Daniels gave consideration to big names out of necessity. ”We had to finance it through bringing in names that meant something overseas.”’
Wait? What? You gave consideration to big names out of necessity? In one paragraph Lee Daniels not only plays the race card but then offers a kind of backhand compliment to the name actors populating the supporting roles. Is Lee Daniels saying there are other actors he would have preferred for the parts, but financial obligations forced his hand? That the only reason we’re seeing John Cusack as Richard Nixon and Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower is because they were required to finance his film? While I have no problem believing that to be true, is that really how you want to play it?
I’m not sure who is running publicity for Lee Daniels’ The Butler, but may I recommend somebody other than Lee Daniels?
To basically imply that your supporting cast is a product of necessity in order to get financial backing further undermines the credibility of the entire production. I would think one would be happy to have veteran actors like John Cusack and Robin Williams rounding out the cast. Maybe Daniels is pleased as punch with their performances, but his spin on the subject should have been caught by a dozen people on the Weinstein Company’s payroll. I don’t know Lee, maybe you were happy to have such a high caliber of actors involved in your film?
Ultimately, the film will have to speak for itself. It certainly can’t do a worse job than Lee Daniels.
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker. His latest work, the novel My Career Suicide Note, is available from Amazon.