‘The Butler’ at the academy: Freedom Riders, palpable pain

Screening of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”
Cuba Gooding Jr. pays his respects to civil rights leader Rev. James Lawson at a special screening of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”
(Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” opened in mid-August, and, in the ensuing months, its namesake director has participated in countless Q&As and receptions both to promote the movie and to keep it alive in the Oscar conversation.

But Daniels had never been involved in an event quite like the one hosted last night by actor Denzel Washington at the Motion Picture Academy’s Goldwyn Theater. Six members of the Freedom Riders, the civil rights activists who defied Jim Crow laws and rode interstate buses into the Deep South in the early ‘60s, attended the screening and shared their memories during a Q&A following the film. Daniels and cast members participated too, as did civil rights activist Rev. James Lawson.

“When you see these people, you see why I wanted to do this movie,” Daniels told me afterward during a reception.

The evening typifies the creative way that Harvey Weinstein uses politics and hot-button issues to appeal to the kind of socially conscious academy members who’d be just as likely to vote for a whiz-bang stunner like “Gravity” as they would Will Ferrell for best actor for “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.”


FULL COVERAGE: Oscars 2014

That strategy continues Thursday when the Weinstein Co. will host what’s billed as a “town hall meeting” at the Museum of Tolerance for one of its Oscar contenders, “Philomena.” The film stars Judi Dench as an elderly Irishwoman who enlists the help of a jaded journalist to find the son that the Roman Catholic Church forced her to give up for adoption 50 years earlier.

“Philomena” director Stephen Frears and Diane Winston (who holds the Knight chair in media and religion at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism) and Craig Detweiler (professor of communication and director for the Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture at Pepperdine) will discuss the history and issues raised by the film and, one presumes, criticism that the movie is just “another hateful and boring attack on Catholics.”

Those given to cynicism might be waiting for the “August: Osage County” screening, when a licensed family therapist joins cast members Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts onstage to discuss relationship issues.


But even those fatigued by award-season shenanigans couldn’t help but be moved by the history on stage at last night’s “Butler” event.

“It’s one thing to depict these atrocities,” actor David Oyelowo said, “but to sit here with you people ...” And here he broke down and wept. “There is so much pain still in this country. It is palpable.”


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