Rarely in Hollywood has a cast appeared more connected, or familial, than the team behind "Lee Daniels’ The Butler."
Director Daniels and stars Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker, Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and David Oyelowo recently joined Yahoo! Movies to discuss their searing biopic. The fact-inspired drama testifies to the tumultuous history of America’s Civil Rights Movement by focusing on White House butler Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), who served sitting presidents for 34 years, and his radical son Louis (Oyelowo).
"When I did this movie," said Daniels, who steered "Precious" to Oscar glory, "it was not a movie that I did for the Civil Rights Movement ... It was a father-son love story. It wasn't until we started with some of those horrific scenes that I had to shoot that I realized it was a bigger film than the father-son story and the usage of the N-word."
As the director and actors talk, the interaction captured on our video speaks volumes. Oprah, who plays the butler's wife, leans over and tells Daniels that her bff Gayle King may be arranging a screening with President Obama, then gives the director a high five. She holds Whitaker's hand and pats his back while the movie’s star discusses his favorite scenes, including one where the couple is in bed together. Later, Oprah drapes her right arm over the chair-back of her on-screen son Oyelowo.
This unspoken bond reflects a level of trust between the six that was built over marathon telephone conversations and working on a second-hand set inherited from "Olympus Has Fallen" in New Orleans.
Despite that connection, the discussion of the N-word reveals a generational fault-line in a cast that has obviously agreed to disagree – at least on camera.
When Gooding, who also plays a White House butler, drops the N-bomb during the interview, it prompts a shock wave of eye rolling, head shaking and exchanged looks. Here goes brother Cuba again.
"Here’s my thing," says the outspoken Gooding, "when I grew up I was break-dancing and hanging out in gang-riddled areas. The word was thrown around as a term of endearment and aggression, and as we've moved on as a society there's a lot of onus that has been given on that word ... To say the word here, to hear that phrase said, has become something of a taboo.”
The Oscar-winner continues: "I respect and honor and understand what so many generations of black men and women have gone through at the hands of racist individuals who find ways to dehumanize and rob them of their masculinity, femininity, family, and they do it by any means possible. A lot of that has been boiled down to 'just don't say the Nigger-word' and, to me, that's asinine. I know people who would never say that word but would never have a black man in their home. So, what's better? To be called a Nigger, or to be invited in your home ... "
Oprah sits quietly during this particular exchange. She recently made her opinion clear when she emphatically told “Parade” Magazine: “You cannot be my friend and use that word around me. It shows my age, but I feel strongly about it … I always think of the millions of people who heard that as their last word as they were hanging from a tree.”
Oyelowo, the British-born son of Nigerian parents, concurs: "That word is filled with so much hate and violence. When you have a race that has been stripped of so much of its power and pride, the things you have to latch onto are the dregs … If this is all you're giving me, this is all your throwing at me day after day, I’m going to take it and change it and I’m going to empower it and, like chitlins, I’m going to make it something palatable."
But, while the actor ("The Paperboy," "MI-5") understands the word’s power, Oyelowo doesn’t use it – and he won't pass it on to the next generation: "I now have kids who are growing up in America and I insist on them being products of an environment that I create, which is that that is unacceptable because I find it unacceptable."
Director Daniels snags the final word on the subject for now, "Even with the N-word we’re all entitled to our opinions. I have my opinion, Oprah has her opinion, and David has his opinion. Personally, I think that we're all right. "