‘The Butler’ more about family and love than race

 ‘The Butler’ screening
Freedom Rider Hank Thomas, left, chats with actors Cuba Gooding Jr. and Elijah Kelley before a screening of the film “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” in Beverly Hills on Tuesday.
(Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a White House butler who serves eight presidents and is caught up in the tumultuous civil rights movement. But, for Daniels, the heart of the story lies with the transcendent love between a father and son.

That, and a moment shared with his mother, attracted Daniels to the project. As a youth, Daniels teased his mother about her missing tooth. The reason behind it remained hidden until one year she told him that she lost it while she was protesting voter injustice.

“She said, ‘I got my tooth knocked out so that you could vote,” Daniels recalled at a screening of the film Tuesday at the Academy theater in Beverly Hills. “It was worse than any beating, whooping or screaming I ever had. My mother marched for me. This is the least I could do for her.”

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Oscar winner Denzel Washington hosted the screening, which included  appearances from cast members David Oyelowo, Jesse Williams, Elijah Kelley and costume designer Ruth Carter. Some of the original Freedom Riders from the 1960s also attended and received a long standing ovation from the crowd.

Hank Thomas was a 19-year-old Howard University student when he joined the Freedom Riders. He talked about a scene in the movie that brought up a harrowing memory: a Freedom Ride bus set on fire by a vicious mob in 1961 in Alabama. Thomas had been on the actual bus.

“It gave me goosebumps,” Thomas said about watching the scene. “The mob outside held the doors shut. Our only crime was sitting down, and they found it worthy of murder.”

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Since its August release, “The Butler” has grossed more than $116 million domestically. The film earned three Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations last week for best ensemble cast, male actor in a leading role for Whitaker and a supporting nod for Oprah Winfrey, who plays Cecil’s wife.

Kelley plays Cecil’s youngest son, Charlie, who enlists in the Vietnam War. Kelley called himself “a grandchild of the civil rights movement,” growing up in rural Georgia with stories of racism and violence. Kelley saw the reflection of his aunts, uncles and grandparents in Freedom Riders at the screening.

“I feel indebted because we will never be able to do what they did for us,” Kelley said. 

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Charles Person, who was 18 at the time of the Freedom Rides and took part in the movement, said he hasn’t healed from that experience in many ways. There was no counseling to deal with what they went through.

“We knew at some point, Lee would call ‘Cut!’ and you can walk to trailer and decompress,” noted Oyelowo, who played Cecil’s older, more radical son.  “Everytime that happened, I was constantly reminded there was no one to call ‘Cut!’ [for the Freedom Riders], there’s no trailer to go to.”

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