Oprah Winfrey & Forest Whitaker on the N-Word, Racism, Trayvon & Their New Movie, ‘The Butler’

I was surrounded by a birthday party of 12 giggly teenagers at a showing of Jaden Smith’s After Earth when I first saw the trailer for The Butler, the new Lee Daniels movie about one black man’s years of service in the White House during the most tumultuous period in the nation’s civil rights history. I mean, they had me at acting heavyweight Forrest Whittaker, who stars in the title role, and sealed the deal with Oprah playing his embattled, alcoholic wife. But it’s the promise of seeing the nuance of a black family—the challenges we’ve faced, the battles we’ve fought, the hope and love we have for our babies in the face of what seems like the insurmountable—that has me excited about this film. Well, that and a Parade magazine conversation between Forest, Oprah and Daniels in which the three power players talk about race, black history, the N-word, Trayvon Martin and Oprah’s decision to get back to acting, her first big screen role since 1998’s Beloved. Here, a few highlights from the Parade magazine interview, plus the trailer for The Butler, which opens August 16th.

On why The Butler brought Oprah back to acting:
Oprah Winfrey: Lee was relentless. I remember being on my mountain in Maui, where I go to try to restore myself. And he called saying, “You need to get ready, because you are Gloria.” So I did it to have the opportunity to work with Lee. I also did it because Gloria represented to me every woman of that era who sacrificed herself … never bringing her own dreams to fruition because family took precedence over everything. It’s a story many have not seen with black people in these roles, because usually we’re one extreme or another. But to see that we are people who love our children, who have the same aspirations as everybody else—I just love that.

On using the N-word:
Lee Daniels: It’s a word I used quite a bit, until Oprah sat me down and talked to me about its power.
Winfrey: 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.
Forest Whitaker: I don’t use the word. Never did.

On whether young people today know enough about the civil rights movement:
Winfrey: They don’t know diddly-squat. Diddly-squat!
Daniels: I showed the film to my relatives … because I figured they’re the harshest of audiences. And my 30-year-old nephew said to me, ‘Did some of this stuff really happen?’ And I was very upset by that.

On their experiences of racism, and the valuation of life:
Whitaker: I’ve had many incidents in my life of racism. I’ve been thrown on the ground. I’ve been frisked. I’ve been arrested so many times I couldn’t tell you. I have no need to talk about it.
Daniels: It’s a given. I can’t even get a taxi [in New York]. I send my [white] assistant out to get a taxi because I can’t.
Whitaker: The movie deals with the valuation of life, too. Like, whose life is valuable? Is it okay to take life? In terms of today, [the film] Fruitvale Station [of which Whitaker is a producer] is playing, about the shooting of Oscar Grant in the Oakland BART station, which just happened in 2009.
Winfrey: And the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
Whitaker: If you can’t accept that these things are going on, you’re living an illusion. So the question at this point is more of, how can we move the needle forward? Can we speak up? I think this film helps that in some way.
Winfrey: Yeah. But do we live in a land where Martin Luther King’s dream has been ultimately fulfilled? No. Has part of the dream been fulfilled?
Daniels: Yes.
Winfrey: [nods] Are more people judged by the content of their character than by the color of their skin? Yes. Is everybody judged by the content of their character? Absolutely not.

On who they think needs to see this movie:
Winfrey: America.
Daniels: That’s good. And kids need to see this movie. I’m fighting to get a PG-13 rating.
Winfrey: This is your answer: People need to see this movie.

Read more of the conversation in Sunday’s Parade

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.

6 Comments

  1. “And my 30-year-old nephew said to me, ‘Did some of this stuff really happen?’ And I was very upset by that.”
    This is my generation and this angers me! But, I’m not surprised. We have forgotten, not all of us, but too many. It’s almost like to be post-racial (a word I LOATHE) means to be ignorant and indifferent.

    Great interview. I can’t wait to see the film, like you they had me at Forrest…

  2. Great article

  3. I am so ready to see this movie. I remember Backstairs at the White House, book and television movie about a maid, African American, Maggie Rogers, who worked in the White House the first half of the 20th Century. I still have my copy of the book. Maybe this is the best way for the younger generation to understand their history and the history of this country. I believe all ethnic and religious groups that have been persecuted have trouble getting the younger generations to understand. I am not sure what they are teaching in school? I used the word “persecuted” as I was not sure which word would covers the different horrors experienced by many. Hopefully we will get a chance to talk about the movie from all perspectives after we see it.

  4. Dear Denene, I am not sure you will read this post as it is an older story, but today I finally went to see The Butler. I had seen the reviews, heard wonderful things about the acting and knew the “butler” had worked in the White House for 32 years. My husband and I went to the early movie, I cried in parts as usual, thought the acting, specially by the main characters was superb.

    When I came home, I thought I would look up more information on the butler the story was written about and to my surprise I found out that half the movie was fabricated. Yes, I know all these things happened as I am 65 and grew up in a house that read papers, watched news and discussed politics. BUT, to find out that the real butler, only had one son, who had gone to Vietnam, and gratefully returned home, that his wife was not an alcoholic, had never had an affair, that the oldest son played so wonderfully by my favorite David Oyelowo, and I can even pronounce his last name (oh-yellow-oh) was very disappointing.

    Maybe if I had known that the screenwriter had taken such great license with the story, I would not have been so bothered, but it seems to me that there was only a “half” story with another “half” added to make a whole. I do admit that it will be a wonderful history lesson for so many in this country that have forgotten or never knew the history of the Civil Rights Movement, but I still feel that I was cheated. Again, the movie was well done and the acting, by so many wonderful actors was superb. Your FB friend, Barbara

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