Archived: Obama on The Butler: 'Oprah, My Girl, She Can Act'

By Chris Hoenig

Photo by Shutterstock

Commander-in-Chief More like Reviewer-in-Chief.

Doing his best Siskel and Ebert, President Obama shared his opinion of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and Oprah Winfrey’s performance in particular, during a radio interview from the Oval Office. “Oprah, my girl, she can act,” the President said of Winfrey’s role, which is already generating Oscar buzz.

“She’s just a wonderful actress. So I’m glad they did it,” Obama said before delving into the current-day White House butlers.”And I will tell you that the butlers who are now here in the White House, when we first arrived, when Michelle and the girls justfirst arrived, they could not have been kinder to us and warmer to us. And part of it, I suspect, is they look at Malia and Sasha and they say, well, ‘This looks like my grandbaby,’ or, ‘This looks like my daughter.’ And I think for them to have a sense that we’ve come that far was a powerful moment for them, and certainly a powerful moment for us. We love them to death. They look after us just wonderfully.”

What did the world’s most powerful moviegoer enjoy most about the movie “Well, my favorite part was probably some of the jokes Cuba Gooding told,” he said.

The President made the remarks during an interview with nationally syndicated radio hosts Tom Joyner and Sybil Wilkes this week, also discussing the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. “I think that Dr. King would be amazed in many ways about the progress that we’ve made. I don’t think that he would look and say nothing has changed,” Obama said.”He would say the fact that we have equal rights before the law; the fact that the judicial system and the courts are accessible, and that African-Americans serve on juries; and that we have thousands of African-American elected officials all across the country; and that we’ve got African-American CEOs of Fortune 100 companies; and we have a large, thriving Congressional Black Caucus; and that, as a consequence of some of the doors that he and others helped kick down, Latinos and women and Asians and the disabled and gays and lesbians, that they all also suddenly found a seat at the tableI think he would say it was a glorious thing.”

Positive Presidential Reviews

President Obama is not the first president to give The Butler positive reviews. Director Lee Daniels says the wife of President George H.W. Bush personally requested a private screening. “Barbara Bush loved Precious and sent me this long letter. It was so touching,” Daniels said. “She said, ‘We want to be the first ones to see the movie.'”

Daniels obliged, setting up a viewing at the family’s retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine, right after the film was finished. “President Bush would [shout], ‘Is that Oprah [Winfrey], honey Is that Oprah’ and Barbara would [shout], ‘Is that Oprah, Lee Is that Oprah'” Daniels recalled. “She would [shout], ‘That’s Oprah, honey!’ I saw it through their eyes and they hung their heads … I felt bad for them … I found myself falling in love with them.”

Presidential Cameo

The Butler is not a perfect movie, at least not in Daniels’ eyes. Sure, the cast turned in some acting-of-a-lifetime performances, with Winfrey and Forest Whitaker both being mentioned among early Oscar frontrunners. They’re some of Hollywood’s biggest names. But there is one White House regular that Daniels wanted in the film but didn’t get.


That’s right, Daniels was hoping for a presidential cameo at the very end of the flick, but never came close to making it happen. “Well, I was too nervous to even ask, because I knew we were gonna get ‘no.’ But you know, I guess it’s OK not to have,” Daniels said. “I guess it’s OK the universe protected me from myself by not putting him in, even if he did, even if the likelihoodwhich was unlikely that he would’ve. He was running for president at the time. Can you imagine if he would’ve taken it If he stopped his election and did a movie!”

And though she stars in the movie, Winfrey’s very healthy bank account did not help make it happen, according to Daniels. “I’m sure if I had gone to her, she would’ve given me the money, but I refused to get money from her because she was a hired gun like everybody else,” he said. “And I had to treat her like everybody else. She opened herself in a way that I felt protective of her, because she wasn’t ‘Oprah.’ She became un-Oprah. Un-O. O became Un-O. Because she was nervous and vulnerable and fragile, I felt the need to protect her from the outside world, because she didn’t come with anybody, she knew the rules.”

“The rules are: The only ego is the film, and you have to serve the film. So it was all about getting her comfortable, because ultimately it wasif she is nervous, then the performance would be nervous, so I had to do every trick in the book, not about demands.” And Daniels said Winfrey sought no special treatment. ” She had no demands. She stood in line with the extras and the crew to eat from a tray with nasty food that tastes like prison food.”

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