Exclusive: Academy Award Winner Forest Whitaker Talks to The Crisis By Lottie L. Joiner

There’s a lot of star power in Lee Daniel’s The Butler. The Hollywood heavyweights include Academy Award-winners Cuba Gooding Jr., Robin Williams and Jane Fonda. There are also appearances by Mariah Carey, Terrance Howard and Lenny Kravitz. Oprah Winfrey gives a commanding performance and rising star David Oyelowo holds his own among the cast of greats. But it’s Forest Whitaker who brings it all together.

Whitaker, who won an Oscar in 2007 for his role as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the movie The Last King of Scotland, portrays Cecil Gaines, a White House butler who serves eight presidents over three decades. The story is loosely based on Eugene Allen, who was profiled in a Washington Post article shortly after Barack Obama was elected the first Black president of the United States. 

Whitaker talked exclusively to The Crisis magazine during the National Association of Black Journalists Conference. He shared his thoughts on his character’s historic place, civil rights and where we are as nation today.

Tell me about Cecil Gaines. How would you describe him?
I would describe him as a man of pride, a man of dignity, a man whose concerns are for his family and the people that he loves, a man who is striving to advance himself. At the end of the movie he’s living in that notion that Dr. Martin Luther King talked about — to be a tranquilizer in a field of gradualness. That’s how he lives. Because by his mere presence, by allowing people to see him and know him, see the dignity and dedication he has to his work, he’s able to change opinions, change the way people think and more and more will follow. By slowly getting to know, you start to accept. So you get to understand the depth of who these people are.

What do you have in common with Cecil?
I’d like to think that I have a belief or care about my family, that I want them to do, to be well. I’d like to believe that I stand by certain ideals, that I approach my life with a certain care. It’s important to me to do things a certain way, to do them well, to execute my soul in whatever I do, no matter what it is. And I think that he did that. He worked diligently and so hard at doing his job and as a result he was there for eight presidencies. It’s phenomenal. But then people always forget the workers are permanent and the presidents are temporary. Normally that job lasts for 20, 30 years. Presidents come in from four to eight. As our government should be, they’re occupying our house. It’s the house of the people. It’s not the house of the president.

You saw America through Cecil’s eyes. What did you learn about America portraying the Butler?
It’s like the photographs of people you see walking in the streets. Those nameless people who actually changed the movement, did the movement. It reinforces my belief of the individual and how important an individual act can be.

What did Cecil teach you about life?
 He amplified my understanding of service. He serves. He’s not servile. He’s not in servitude. It’s a different thing. When you learn about giving – one of the codes [of the butler] was to bring a smile to the eye to create magical moments, to elevate someone’s life. But I think there are many ways of service and it taught me about serving with abundance. Not worrying about what you get back, but giving more. I’m giving because I want to give and when I give to you I already give to myself.

Cecil and his son have a strained relationship. You see two people who you think are different, but really aren’t.
They’re similar, but different paths. And I think that’s a great thing to take from this movie. There are many different paths to get there. That’s the way it’s always been. These paths have to walk alongside each other — just like Martin and Malcolm. It’s not possible to have the Deacons for Defense and not also have CORE [Congress of Racial Equality]. And I think that’s what you get to see in the movie. He’s [Cecil is] an activist in his way. He’s asking for economic sanctions. He’s saying, “Can you pay us the same? It’s not fair. They get more and we do the same job. Probably we do more.” So he was trying. But at one point, he decides in order to have his voice be heard he has to be a little louder or a little different. He’s like how can I make this happen? How can I accomplish what I want? Then he decides I no longer want to take this path. I want to stand and march with my son. I want to have my voice heard in a different way.

What did the father and son learn from each other?
I think it’s a real big thing. Sometimes we have struggles with our parents and as we get older sometimes, the gift we get is appreciation. I think Cecil began to appreciate his son and what he was doing and my son appreciated who I was and what I was doing. Appreciation is a divine act. It’s a special thing to be able to truly appreciate someone for what they give and what they offer.

The 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington is just a few weeks after the release of The Butler.
It’s interesting. We’re in a time where people are starting to affirm themselves. They’re speaking out. They’re talking. They want to be heard. Being heard is really important. Acknowledgement of a thing is one of the first steps to the understanding of it; for people to feel empowered to know that I matter. So I think that March was one of those statements too – I’m here.
I have a story: Martin Luther King went to a hotel and they wouldn’t let him in. So he sat outside. He just sat there, until the night. And finally the owner comes out and says, “What is it you want?” And Martin says, “dignity.” Larry King told me that. I was like, really? I could see him doing that. Isn’t that powerful?

Why is this film important?
The butler is part of the fabric of this nation. I’ve talked about it many times before – people talk about civil rights history and I really feel we should look at it as a living history as opposed to something that’s occurred. If you have a project and you want to finish it, you start it and you keep working on it, so it’s still going on. It’s not history, you’re still writing it. So you have this promissory note and it’s like this is what you guys promised: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then I’m working towards that. And so that’s what we’re doing now. We’re still working towards that. Until we get to that, the country’s never achieved what it said it’s going to be. To me this movie is saying, “Yes look at what we’re doing. Not what we’ve done, what we’re doing.” We’re still making a change in this, step by step.

Cecil gets to see the election of the first Black president after serving in the White House for 30-plus years under eight presidents. What does that moment mean?
To him, it was kind of an acknowledgement that was overwhelming. It’s like the possibility. It’s the first time Eugene Allen is invited to an inauguration in all those years. It had to be unbelievably overwhelming. Wil [Haygood] talks about it. He said they came to pick him up. It was so cold. They had to walk all these blocks and they were worried about his health, he’s an old guy. They’d stop and tried to keep him from going on and Wil said, “Maybe we should go back.” And he said, “No, no. I have to do this. I have to be there.”



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