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Exclusive: Interview with The Butler director Lee Daniels (part two)

"That I'm not HIV positive is shocking to me…"


Yesterday we revealed the first part of our exclusive interview with Lee Daniels, the Academy Award-nominated director behind The Paperboy, Precious, and the number one US box office smash The Butler, out in UK cinemas now.

Based on a true story, it tells the tale of White House butler Cecil Gaines, who serves during seven presidential administrations. Cecil is a firsthand witness to history and the inner-workings of the Oval Office as the civil rights movement unfolds.

Asides from revealing that Oprah Winfrey - who stars in The Butler alongside an ensemble cast of Forest Whitaker, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Alan Rickman and more - is an absolute "power-top", Daniels used our interview to make a plea for the LGBT community to find the heroes inside themselves to help fight the good fight for equality, like the Freedom Riders, as told in The Butler.

In the final part of our interview, Daniels tells us of his first-hand experiences losing his friends to the HIV virus, the LGBT community using humour to survive, and how he hopes to one day make the great gay film which changes the world's perspective of homosexuality forever…

GT: In The Butler, Forest Whitaker's character Cecil Gaines watched the civil rights movement from his own unique position in the White House, while his family is fighting out on the front line. Do you see parallels now between Cecil and yourself? With what's going on with the LGBT community's struggle for equality?

Lee Daniels: Man, you know, I remember it was in my lifetime that I could have sex unprotected. And it just seemed like yesterday that bathhouses were something that celebrated your gayness. But then, in an eyelash, I lost all my friends. In an eyelash. That I'm not HIV positive is shocking to me. It's incomprehensible to me that I'm not HIV positive. That people are living healthy lives with HIV now is incomprehensible to me. That we're addressing bullying and talking about it openly and candidly is incompressible to me. That we're addressing these issues is incomprehensible to me. That my parented and I are able to adopt children [laughs] is incomprehensible to me. We've come such a long way. My kids are a product of an interracial same-sex marriage and they don't have a clue about homophobia because both of their parents are men, and we've created a world that's their world now. That they're able to pass that on brings me almost to tears. We've made a vast improvement and, you know, touché.

You told us how you were worried about watching The Butler back and it not having the Lee Daniels edge to it, but we thought were was a lot of striking imagery. In the first five minutes alone you see a black couple who've fallen victim to a lynching mob. It's not as if it's without its edge…

Well, have you seen The Paperboy?

How could we not with that Zac Efron scene? [In The Paperboy, Nicole Kidman's character urinates on Zac Efron's character after he suffers a jellyfish sting]

Well, yes, it's not quite the same as Zac Efron being urinated on [laughs].

Was it important to bring in elements of comedy to The Butler as well? There was a fair bit of dark humour in there.

I think, as gay men, we find humour in everything. I remember my friends that were dying of AIDS and w really didn't know - we truly didn't know - how it was exchanged. We didn't know whether it was from poppers, amyl nitrate or whether it was from touching. But it was attacking gay men. I remember losing my first group of seven friends that were intimate, and the way we all went through it - both the people that were dying and the people who were watching them die - was through humour. I did research for The Butler and found that not only is it a gay thing, but it's a survival thing. The slaves that journeyed from Africa to America were the ones that laughed. And that humour is sort of a survival mechanism. So I try and enthuse that into my work, and I tried to enthuse that into this film. We were;t talking ourselves too seriously because they [the characters] didn't take themselves too seriously.

Well, 'survival' as a word is so important when it comes to equality these days...

I tried to really hit on it with my film Precious. In the African-American community homosexuality is really looked down upon, in a harsh way. And, with Precious... have you seen it?

We have.

Do you remember when Precious found out her teacher was a lesbian? It was so shocking to her. It was like 'oh my God, she's a lesbian. Oh my god'.

But her teacher was a figure she looked up to.

Exactly. And it was very confusing to her that this women was teaching her how to read, because she's a lesbian. And Precious was taught that lesbians and gays were bad people. So that was really important to me, to get that across in the film. But I think that it's hard, you know, because we like the humour.

Do you think we're still victim to homophobia from Hollywood?

I think it's ok for gay people to make fun of gay people in cinema. I think it's ok. But is it a contradiction that I'm appalled and think there's something wrong if a heterosexual is making fun, even if it's on TV or something? There's something wrong about it. If it's not written or directed by someone from our community… I feel that's a contradiction, but I still have a problem with it. Like, we're the only ones who can make fun of us. I'm the only one who can make fun of me.

Perhaps it comes back to that issue of survival, and making the distinction of whether we're being laughed at through malice…

And we can make that distinction so instinctively.

It seems to be all coming together in 2013 for films that tackle prejudice, particularly racism. As well as The Butler, we've got Mandela and 12 Years a Slave…

Isn't that great? And I think they all compliment each other. What a great year. But now we just have to find that great year for gay cinema. I think occasionally they give us some… we'll get the Brokeback Mountains every now and again.

But the Brokeback Mountains we're given are always Hollywood stories, aren't they?

I think it would be nice for me, you know, to figure out how to find the right true story. Like, Philadelphia was told from a heterosexual man's perspective… but to find a story which strikes and penetrates the heart of the world about gays would be just fantastic. That's got me thinking about something now. My minds a-brewing.

A future project, maybe?

I haven't given my all to the gay community with the right film, so that's still in me somewhere. 'They' were talking about me and, you know, rumour had it that I was doing this film with Alex Pettyfer about a gay action hero. That would be fun and everything. But I'm talking about something which feels very much like The Butler, except in our world. Something which changes people's perspective on us. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

To read part one of our interview with Lee Daniels, on what drew him to The Butler, Steven Spielberg's backwash and Oprah being a "power-top", click here.

The Butler, one of the most critically-acclaimed films of the year and the American box office number one, is out in UK cinemas now.


Words: Ryan Butcher (@RyanJohnButcher)

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