This is one of the only movies to chronicle the civil rights movement and show the White House from an African-American’s point of view. Here’s an insider’s list of things to know about the making of the film and the real man who inspired it.
Why is the director’s name in the title?
Who the heck is Lee Daniels, anyway?
53-year-old Daniels began his career as a casting director for such films as Purple Rain and Under the Cherry Moon. He moved on to directing in 2005 with a film called Shadow Boxer, then 2009’s award-winning Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. He followed that movie up with the 2012 steamer The Paperboy starring Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron. Daniels is currently rumored to be in talks to make a Janis Joplin biopic.
Is the movie based on a true story?
This movie was inspired by a real White House butler named Eugene Allen, who was the subject of a 2008 article in the Washington Post written by Wil Haygood. You can read the original article by clicking here. The character Cecil Gains, played by the masterful Forest Whitaker, is a highly fictionalized version of Allen, who died in 2010.
How’d they get those actors to look so much like the actual presidents?
By hiring an Oscar-winning prosthetics designer named Matthew Mungle. But the shooting locale didn’t provide ideal conditions for his fake noses and chins, however. The film was shot in muggy New Orleans in the summer forcing Mungle to figure out how to get soft latex, silicone and quick-melting gelatin body parts to retain their shapes in temperatures well over 100 degrees.
Hanoi Jane as Nancy Reagan — is this a joke?
Jane Fonda plays Nancy Reagan in the film and reportedly relished the irony, telling the New York Post, “The idea that I could play Nancy Reagan was just too much to resist… I thought it would be fun. I know that people say: ‘Oh my gosh, Jane Fonda is playing Nancy Reagan.’ But I don’t think whatever difference may be in our politics really matters.” Fonda also really wanted facial prosthetics that would recreate her nose and give her higher cheekbones, but Lee Daniels wanted to keep her face more natural. The liberal actress was finally given just a slightly wider nose with a false tip. Fonda also insisted on wearing actual vintage dresses and power suits similar to the ones the real Nancy wore so well.
Is Oprah a diva?
According to director Lee Daniels, Oprah was surprisingly humble on set. Regarding the billionaire, he said, “She stands in line like everyone else for catering, she doesn’t hold herself any differently than any other actor.” He also claimed Lady O arrived on set everyday alone without an entourage. For a woman who can afford a $37,000 handbag, we’re impressed.
No love for Sammy Davis, Jr?
The controversial event not in the movie: Sammy Davis, Jr. showing up at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration with his white wife, Swedish actress May Britt. Despite having campaigned for JFK, Davis was removed from the invitation list by the administration for fear that the interracial couple would be too progressive for stodgy Southern Democrats in attendance. Upon seeing the couple, Kennedy’s face reportedly turned red and Davis and Britt were escorted out. Awkward…
Obama not the first African-American to influence the White House.
Lead actor Forest Whitaker thinks the presence of African-Americans in the White House before 2008 helped to shift public opinion, paving the way for America’s first black President, Barack Obama. The Acadamy Award-winning actor said, “We have all these individuals, like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, who were in powerful positions preceding President Obama. I don’t think Obama would be president without the movement of all those others… ”
The movie is actually a father/son story.
Forest Whitaker plays the father of Louis Gains, played by British actor David Oyelowo. Whitaker said of the relationship, “My character represents the old school and the old guard. He is changing opinions by his mere presence in the White House, by his behavior and acceptance… Then you have my son addressing those same issues in the streets with the civil rights movement, through things like marches and sit-ins.” Both father and son are eventually able to consider each other’s point of view.
The director got a scary taste of the past.
Director Lee Daniels claims he finally understood the frightening aspects of racism his parents and grandparents went through when he was filming the Freedom Rider scene on a bus. From inside the bus, Daniels yelled cut to the hundred or so actors playing the angry mob outside, but they didn’t hear him. Daniels said the mob in KKK costumes “ …kept on coming at the bus because they couldn’t hear me. It was in that moment that I suddenly realized what it must have felt like to be one of the kids on those Freedom Rider buses years ago.”