"Lee Daniels' The Butler" began as a story about a father and son set against the backdrop of the U.S. civil rights movement, but the film grew into a sweeping historical drama about love, family and racial equality.
Inspired by the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American White House butler who served eight U.S. presidents, the film chronicles the changing political landscape and race relations from a deeply divided South in the 1920s, through the battles for desegregation, to the election of Barack Obama, the first African-American president.
"It was a homage to my son and me and my father and then it took on its own life because I started realizing there is now other stuff," Daniels, the Oscar-nominated director of the 2009 drama "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," said in an interview before the film's opening in U.S. theaters Friday.
While "Precious" zeroed in on the world of an overweight black teenage girl, "The Butler" offers a broad view on race through different characters' viewpoints.
"This is truth. This is like a scab that is being ripped off you and you are looking at something for the first time, and it is making us as black people, as white people, look at racism in America in a way we haven't before."
"The Butler" stars Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker, 52, in the title role of Cecil Gaines, the dedicated, dignified White House servant who while history unfolds before him also witnesses it from behind the scenes in the Oval Office.
Oprah Winfrey, in her first acting role since "Beloved" in 1998, is his chain-smoking, hard-drinking wife Gloria. Loving but discontented, she is caught between her husband and their strong-willed activist son, Louis, played by David Oyelowo.
While Cecil strives for a better life and to change opinions about race through his hard work and consistency, Louis opts for a more radical route through protests, sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and freedom bus rides through the South.
'ABLE TO TOUCH THE SOUL'
Whitaker, a best-actor Oscar winner in 2007 for his role as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland," described Cecil as one of the most complicated roles he had ever encountered. He did the most work of his career in breaking down the character and admitted he was scared about taking on the role that spanned decades.
"But fear is good because it pushes you to get better if you walk through it," the Texas-born actor told Reuters. "At some point you just fall into the character and hope by surrendering that he will come to you and help you through the whole process."
Winfrey had her own reservations about returning to the big screen after so many years away, but had no doubt that Whitaker nailed the part.
"He was somehow able to touch the soul and the spirit of that guy, and through that allow us to feel the spirit of the country," Winfrey, 59, said of his performance.
The talk show host and television network owner had all but given up on acting, finding it difficult to juggle it with all her other commitments, but the role of Gloria and Daniels' persistence persuaded her.
"I think that the story of the growing middle-class African American, from colored to Negro to black to African-American family, is a story that hasn't been told with the level of tenderness and care and love that you see displayed on that screen," she told Reuters.
The film also stands out for its large supporting cast, including Oscar-winners Cuba Gooding Jr., Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, as well as Lenny Kravitz, Alan Rickman and Terrence Howard. The vast A-list cast belies the relatively low cost of the film - around $25 million, financed by 28 investors.
It is expected to earn $19 million in U.S. and Canadian sales during its first weekend, according to Boxoffice.com, a strong opening for a film with a modest budget. Weinstein Co. is distributing the movie in the United States.
Directing a big film covering a long time span with a large supporting cast was a challenge for Daniels.
"I was terrified because I didn't know if I could focus for so long," admitted the 53-year-old director. "I think God put this story in motion and landed it at a time just when it was supposed to be."