British actor David Oyelowo is extremely convincing playing the rebellious son determined to fight for racial equality in the new drama Lee Daniels’ The Butler out on Friday (August 16).
The film tells the story of Cecil Gaines, a fictional butler, played by Forest Whitaker, who serves in the White House during seven presidencies. The movie focuses on Gaines, his family and America’s civil rights movement.
Gaines’ son Louis, played by Oyelowo, is constantly at loggerheads with his father. Among the issues that divide them is the son’s view that racial equality can only come about through determined political activism. His father favors a more reserved approach.
Oprah Winfrey plays Louis’s mother in her first major onscreen movie appearance in fifteen years. Oyelowo maintains it really didn’t take long for him to view her in character on set and forget he was acting opposite the world-famous former TV talk show queen. He says: “She dispels that whole thing very quickly, because she doesn’t come on with a great, big entourage. She’s not there doing whatever you deem to be ‘the Oprah Winfrey thing.’ She’s all about the work, and she’s all about just being a human being on the set, as opposed to an icon or whatever.”
Oyelowo is classically trained and his technique — if that’s the right word mdash; is flawless. The British actor says he strove for authenticity in his portrayal of a young African-American in the Civil rights era. “I’ve lived here for six years now, and what it means for me is that I can’t afford to ever take it for granted. When I do my research, especially for a film that touches on history like this, I’ve got to get it right. I’ve got to go and do my work properly.”
The Butler, directed by Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy), has a lot of star power. Cast members include not just Oprah Winfrey but Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Fonda, Alan Rickman, Mariah Carey, Robin Williams and John Cusack. But the conventional wisdom has it that overseas audiences are often reluctant to watch films that tell African-American stories.
David Oyelowo has his own views on the picture’s box office appeal: “I think because it’s a quintessentially American film its main audience will be in America. But the great thing about the film is that it’s centered around a family. And that’s any family, anywhere. And so, I would hope, whether you are interested in America’s history or America generally that element is something you can latch onto.”
One cautionary note: The Butler isn’t giving audiences the absolute truth. It’s a movie concoction; the butler depicted in the film never existed, but he is based on a real White House butler, Eugene Allen, who served in the White House for 34 years and died in 2010.