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‘The Butler’ reflects America’s racial conversations

Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker star in "The Butler." (27149)
Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker star in “The Butler.” Credit: The Weinstein Company

It’s been a summer where you could not escape the matter of race if you tried.

From the verdict in the shooting death of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin, to lifestyle maven Paula Deen being accused of using the “N word” and the Supreme Court’s overturning a portion of the Voting Rights Act, conversations about race have dominated the headlines.

At the same time, Hollywood has had the fortuitous timing of releasing two films that appear to reach into America’s psyche right now and wring out all of the unease, anger and pain that can accompany conversations about race.

“Fruitvale Station” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” contain similar themes about the historical treatment of African-American men in the United States. “Fruitvale Station” is based on the real life case of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Oakland resident who was detained by members of the Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Department and ultimately shot to death on New Year’s Day 2009. Likewise, “The Butler” is based on the true story of a black man who served as a butler in the White House through several presidential administrations including during the civil rights era.

Not only do both films tackle issues of civil rights, but they also share a Hollywood connection: Forest Whitaker stars as the main character, Cecil Gaines, in “The Butler” and is an executive producer of “Fruitvale Station.”

Whitaker spoke to the Wall Street Journal about the two movies’ similarities.

“We have to recognize, in ‘The Butler,’ in ‘Fruitvale,’ people (are) standing up and trying to say things,” Whitaker said. “We’re in a living history. … I believe we’re at that moment of a tipping point, where we’re saying, we are in this together and any injustice done to you, as Mother Teresa would say, is one done to me. If I can’t see my face inside of you, then I truly don’t see the whole of who I am.”

The success of “The Butler” — which was No. 1 at the box office, taking in $25 million for its opening weekend — could be viewed as surprising given outcries over films like 2011’s “The Help,” which also featured black characters in roles of servitude.

Oprah Winfrey, who stars as Whitaker’s wife in “The Butler,” acknowledged possible backlash.

“My mother was a maid. My grandmother was a maid. Her mother was a maid,” Winfrey told Parade Magazine.

“To look down upon that part of my history would be ridiculous. I am the seed of that,” she said. “So for me, (‘The Butler’) is a story about family and connection, living through those times. I hope people come away from it with a sense of pride and gratitude for that generation, because none of us would be here without the butlers and maids. None of us.”

In a CNN story titled “Is ‘The Help’ heroic or stereotyping?” published in 2011, “The Help” star Octavia Spencer — who also stars in “Fruitvale Station” — defended the film that eventually won her an Academy Award for best supporting actress.

“This is one of the first times that I’ve seen domestics or people of lower means from that era have a voice and the story has been told from their perspective,” Spencer said. “I’ve never read something where we weren’t just plot points and our characters had lives outside of the kitchen.”

Prior to the opening of “The Butler,” CNN asked director Lee Daniels if he had concerns about black moviegoers not supporting his film.

Daniels said he looked very close to home to gauge what the response might be.

“My family’s rough on me,” he said. “I have a 91-year-old uncle. He was the first pediatric surgeon of color in America and when he saw this movie, I can’t explain to you what it was like. He cried from the beginning to the end, and he laughed from beginning to end.”

Daniels believed his 16-year-old son might have issues with the film, but instead he gave it a thumbs up. “He told me that this was the greatest achievement that I had done.”

In a conversation with AOL, Winfrey also acknowledged the challenge of getting movie goers to turn out for such heavy fare.

“I know it’s hard to get audiences of all races and backgrounds out to see a movie, particularly what it takes to just go out to a film … because race makes people uncomfortable,” Winfrey said. “For me (the film is) a drama, it’s history and it’s also a great love story about family.”

Since “The Butler” opened, the film has stirred high emotions for reasons beyond its on-screen themes.

CNN affiliate WJLA reported that there was concern after a couple took to Twitter to announce that a showing of “The Butler” in Washington had a large amount of security. Alan Hanson and Tiffany Flowers questioned whether the audience was being racially profiled.

“They must have thought this was going to be a particularly rowdy crowd,” Flowers told WJLA. “I’ve traveled the world; been to a lot of movie theaters. This is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this.”

Regal Entertainment Group, which owns the theater, issued a statement denying that “The Butler” had been targeted for any special treatment.

“Regal Entertainment Group routinely employs security personnel to ensure the safety of all of our guests and staff,” the statement said. “When a theatre experiences sold-out showings of any feature, security will assist with crowd control and guest assistance throughout the facility, including auditoriums.”

Lisa Respers France | CNN