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'The Butler:' Is it a family story or a race story?

August 15, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik
  • Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker in "Lee Daniels' The Butler." "It's a story of a family torn apart by history," writer Danny Strong said.
Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker in "Lee Daniels' The Butler."…

One of the intriguing aspects of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is that it straddles the line between father-son tale and race-relations epic.

On the one hand, of course, it’s about a man (Forest Whitaker’s Cecil Gaines) who witnessed some of the great moments in civil rights history from his perch as a server in the White House. On the other hand, it’s about what was happening in that man’s own family, and the rift between his own ruffle-no-feathers approach and his activist son Louis, who dabbled in the world of the Black Panthers as well as less radical ideologies.

So is it a story of the civil rights struggle or a universal take on parent-child strife?

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Both, says writer Danny Strong. In fact, he believes the two are connected. “It’s a story of a family torn apart by history,” Strong said.

The Emmy winner said he certainly wasn’t averse to creating a story about the milieu of the White House, and what the men there did (and didn't) do in the battle for equality. “It’s about men with a lot of power as viewed by a man who’s powerless,” he said of the White House-butler conceit.

But Strong also sees the civil rights struggle as a tool of sorts, a prism through which to illuminate generational differences. In that respect, it could be about any father and son who feel strongly about following a way of life — and even feel strongly that the others should follow their way of life too.

“As I was grappling with how to compress so much history into one movie, I realized what the movie really was was a story of a father and a son,” Strong said. “It’s the story of a man who thought he could make a better life for his family, and his son who said he needed to do it a different way.”

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Strong is no stranger to making these political tales personal: He found the complex human relationships in big-canvas stories like HBO’s “Recount,” about the 2000 presidential election, as well as in the network’s “Game Change,” about Sarah Palin and her polarizing effect during the 2008 campaign.

As with the subjects of those films, history has shaded our understanding and made us see events with a fresh clarity. After all, it was Louis' activism that proved both right and fruitful.

But Strong said one of his goals with this movie was to remove viewers 20/20 hindsight and put them in the  position of the people going through these battles.

“In retrospect, what Louis and his friends were doing was heroic,” Strong said. “But at the time there were people, good people like Cecil, who said ‘don’t do that’ because they were afraid you could get yourself killed. And some did."


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