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I feel like this summer has been really bizarre for race and people talking about race, because there’s been Trayvon Martin and there’s been the whole Paula Deen thing getting blown up, and the voting rights act striked down, and with Fruitvale Station and this
And also the march in Washington, this is the 50th anniversary of the I Have a Dream speech.
With this and you being involved in Fruitvale Station, it seems like you’re in the middle of this conversation. Has it been hard for you to kind of figure out where you are in that conversation? Has it been a tough summer for you in that way?
Not really, I mean I know that I believe we all are endowed with the right to be treated well and to have freedom. So, I was attracted to that. I met Ryan and Ryan had these ideas and this one appealed to me and I just said, let’s do it. I wanted to support him because I believe he is a voice of today and tomorrow, you know. I think he’s an important filmmaker and the story is important to be told, to start a dialogue and to make us think, you know fully, make us question, you know, and look for answers in ourselves. It doesn’t mean that we can always find the answer for yourself, but the pursuit of trying to do the right thing, you know, is important. And to not stand idly by, is important..
Well, what’s interesting about The Butler is in the way that Cecil is deliberately trying to not participate in everything that’s happening all around, really against his son being an activist. Then by the end, you see him kind of get into it by the end. I was trying to figure out if the movie thought he did the wrong thing by not participating in so much, the social activism of the ‘60s and it doesn’t seem like it really judges him, but I wonder if you felt that way.
I don’t think it does. I think there’s many different ways to shift perspective in reality, you know. There’s an attrition that occurs from someone just being in someone’s presence and new understanding.
Well, that’s what, like King says about the domestic workers and how it’s secretly subversive, I think he says.
It is subversive. I think that my character learns that for him, there are many different ways to protest, many different ways to move things forward. I think that he realizes that, cause he was protesting a lot when he walked in and asked for raises for the staff, he was protesting. When he tries to send his son, when he says, “I’m going to make you have another life you deserve, to have another life,” even though he wants him to stand out. He doesn’t want to go to fists, because he’s scared. He loves him, he doesn’t want to be hurt, but he does these things. Now, my son, he’s actively, aggressively trying to change the equation of caring, because both of us are about love, both of us are about caring, because I care so much about my family and want them to do better and to have a better life. My son cares so much about himself and his race that he wants, he’s forcing it to be a better life, you know what I mean. So, they’re different, coming from different perspectives, you know, just as like Martin and Malcolm came from different perspectives.
There’s this great triumphant moment at the end of the film where he’s going up to meet Barack Obama, but again, with all of the nasty stuff that’s been happening this summer in the news, it feels like there’s this sense of there’s so much left undone.
Do you feel that bittersweetness, when you get to the end of this movie?
I do. This movie is dealing with the civil rights movement, and everybody is looking at it like it’s history, but it’s not. This movie is dealing with the movement of reaching towards this goal of everybody being free and having all these rights that everybody has been talking about, to be equal. So, this is pushing it to here and it’s continuing the conversation. It’s a spring that’s moving. It’s a bike that’s moving down and it’s riding across and still hasn’t gotten to the other side of what this country supposedly, theoretically stands for, which may stand for that in ways more than any other country in the world, but it’s not gotten to the ideal that you and me want it to have.
So, this movie is just bringing us along the way. Now, should we be allowed to celebrate it at times? Should we be allowed to still have hope? We must have hope, you know what I mean. The whole campaign was built on hope. Every time we live and breathe, there’s hope, you know what I mean? Some people would say that even after we die, there’s still hope, but at least we know that while we’re breathing, there’s still hope that something can change and become better. [Note: I pointed out to Whitaker that the state motto of South Carolina is "While I breathe, I hope," which he says he didn't know before. He's just that quotable a guy.]
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