Lee Daniels says racism played role in ‘Butler’s’ struggle for money

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NEW YORK -- Lee Daniels is never one to hold back on hot-button topics like race and the movie business.

So when the director of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is asked why he thinks it was hard to get his new movie financed, he comes back with a direct answer.

“Hollywood would not allow me to make a black drama,” he said last week in an interview in Manhattan, where he primarily lives. “I couldn’t get this movie off the ground even after ‘Precious’ made $100 million around the world,” referring to his 2009 award-season hit.


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He ended up making “The Paperboy” first instead, a melodrama with some racial overtones but a largely white cast, before making the $30-million “The Butler” with a patchwork of independent financing. (He was still raising money during shooting.)

The rejections he heard from financiers and studios as he sought money for “The Butler” were, in his view, rooted in long-debunked tropes about black films.

“It’s bull ... that our movies don’t make money,” he said, then added pointedly that he thought industry types didn’t protest the point for reasons of cowardice and self-protection. “It’s politically incorrect to scream racism at the studios in Hollywood. People fear for their jobs,” he said.

Daniels said the budgetary concerns he was hearing were what particularly rankled after the success of “Precious.” “How dare you tell me how much money to spend on this movie,” he said, addressing those in Hollywood who put a hard cap on the film. “How dare you.”

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“The Butler,” starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, tells of Cecil Gaines, a man who served as a White House butler for seven presidents, and focuses on differing ideologies in the battle for civil rights, as manifest by the docile Cecil and his more activist son.

Daniels said he has very personal reasons for making the movie. In part, he said, it was motivated by his own rift with his father, whom he depicts as a man prone to abusive behavior but who he long sought to understand. He also very much wanted to try to explain the world to his own teenage son, who he says is beginning to comprehend the dimensions of racism in this country.

“I came out of the bubble of making this movie and Trayvon Martin was happening, voting rights issues were happening. It was sad and frustrating,” Daniels said. “I wanted to make this movie for my son, who I can’t always talk to about racism and who doesn’t always understand what I’m talking about. Having the race talk with my son is worse than having the birds and the bees talk. And I wanted him to know what’s going on.”


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