Ties that bind: Forest Whitaker as White House butler Cecil Gaines in <em>The Butler</em>.

Ties that bind: Forest Whitaker as White House butler Cecil Gaines in The Butler.

Talk-show queen and accomplished actress Oprah Winfrey has a palpable emotional intelligence, which either issued from her now well-documented abusive childhood in Mississippi, or allowed her to thrive in spite of it.

Her unique breadth of life experience is encapsulated in the bookends of our meeting; where Winfrey exudes the kind of Southern charm that impels her to address me as ''Miss Cummings'', yet is stately enough to raise her hand to an advancing publicist at the close of the interview, commanding simply ''Let me finish''.

The film begins with a lynching and ends with Obama. In one person's lifespan that happened. 

Oprah Winfrey

That I'm in her busy schedule at all is to discuss why Winfrey - one of America's most wealthy and influential women - has taken up her first film role in 15 years. After all, in the midst of establishing her own television network, she must have had a compelling reason to return to acting.

Terrence Howard as Howard and Oprah Winfrey as
Gaines' wife, Gloria, in <em>The Butler</em>.

Terrence Howard as Howard and Oprah Winfrey as Gaines' wife, Gloria, in The Butler.

In Winfrey's first major film performance since 1998's Beloved (and 18 years after she gained an Oscar nomination for her first role, in The Color Purple), The Butler finds her playing Gloria Gaines, the wife of

Forest Whitaker's White House butler. ''It was [director] Lee Daniels that attracted me to the film,'' she says.

''And then it was the bigger story and the ability to allow Gloria to represent an era of women who stood by their husbands, sacrificed their own ambitions and any dreams they might have had for anything, and really bonded the family, were the glue for the family.''

Oprah Winfrey as matriarch Gloria Gaines in <em>The Butler</em>.

Oprah Winfrey as matriarch Gloria Gaines in The Butler.

The world, she observes, is made up of all kinds of warriors. ''Because of those kind of women, I'm allowed to be who I am,'' she says.

The ''bigger story'' that drew Winfrey to the project is its focus on race relations in the United States; specifically, the strides the nation has made - and struggles endured - in becoming a ''post-racial'' society in the wake of the civil rights movement.

The movie, which is called Lee Daniels' The Butler in the US after a naming dispute, also turns its lens on the small world of the family, using the relationships between Cecil Gaines and his older son, Louis - a civil rights activist and sometime militant - to explore generational tensions about how to effect change. ''I think that we all have our different ways of trying to live a better life,'' says Whitaker. ''The thing isn't necessarily how you pursue it - which is I think the problems of me and my son - it's about the fact that you do.''

Through Cecil Gaines, we're afforded an overview of a certain period in American history, from his childhood in the Georgia cotton fields to his role as a butler in the White House, serving seven presidents. The witness-to-history arc has earned the film some unkind comparisons to Forrest Gump, but it is inspired, in fact, by the life story of a real man, Eugene Allen, chronicled first in a 2008 Washington Post article, and more recently in the slender book The Butler: A Witness to History, by journalist Wil Haygood.

As a White House butler, Allen served eight presidents, from Truman to Reagan. The period spanned many of the significant events and movements in 20th-century American racial history: marches to end desegregation, sit-ins, the anti-apartheid movement and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

Dramatic embellishments have been made to the Allens' story, including giving them two sons rather than one. Winfrey's character is also seen battling alcohol addiction and indulging in an affair, details for which she apologised to Charles Allen - the only son of Eugene and Helene Allen - after he saw the film. ''Before he said anything, I go, 'Please know, I took a lot of liberties with your mother','' she recounts. ''And he said, 'Yeah, you basically threw my mother under the bus'.''

''You know, it would have been not as interesting to have her at home sewing all day long and feeding her fish,'' says Winfrey.

Fidelity to the truth, though, troubles at the core of Winfrey's dual personas as a talk show host and actor. ''When I first did The Color Purple, I'd literally never acted before,'' she says. ''I had books on method acting in my hotel room because I was trying to figure out, how do you act?

''Because I live a life where I only tell the truth, so what is acting?''

Now, she can happily tell stories against herself, of causing chaos on set on the first day of shooting by speaking straight to camera, as she was accustomed, or of finding it impossible to cry. But as she discovered, acting used many of the skills she had been honing as a journalist. ''Real acting is the embodiment of another human spirit,'' she says. ''The words and the script are just a map into the soul. When I was doing The Color Purple I could see - even though I'd never done it before - that I got to find a way to tell the truth.''

Whitaker is struck by the veracity in Winfrey's method. ''She was so committed and not just committed to the character but committed to the truth,'' he says. ''And so, as a result, she did certain things sometimes that were just startling for me.''

In a scene that was cut from the film, Winfrey's character learns one of her sons has died. ''She let out this scream and she fell to the ground and it was such … It just threw me and I couldn't comfort her,'' says Whitaker. ''And I was like, what do I do? I don't know what to do.''

Although both actors were motivated by the political message of the film, and endeavour to devote their resources and energy to continued change, Winfrey is not a pessimist about how far things have advanced. ''The film begins with a lynching and ends with Obama,'' says Winfrey. ''In one person's lifespan that happened.''

Winfrey's own mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were all maids. ''Growing up, that's all my grandmother thought I would ever become,'' she recalls. ''She used to say, 'I hope that you get some good white folks' because her family, the Leonards, had been so good to her. That was her dream for me: to grow up and be able to be in a house where I was treated with some respect and they would give me their hand-me-downs or whatever.''

For Winfrey's grandmother, the possibility Oprah could become one of the United States' wealthiest women, have the ear of the President or become a media proprietor and household name exceeded the realm of thought. ''She never even imagined,'' says Winfrey. ''Couldn't imagine.''

 

Hollywood's Obama effect

A number of films about African Americans will be released in the United States in the latter months of 2013. Hollywood studio executive Harvey Weinstein, who produced The Butler, has dubbed the surge in these movies "the Obama effect", crediting the election of a black US president with a cultural shift that has grown audiences for black stories.

The Butler

Based on a true story, an African-American White House butler witnesses many notable events of the 20th century as he serves seven presidents.

Baggage Claim

In this rom-com, flight attendant Montana Moore uses her airline privileges to mount her pursuit to find Mr Right within a tight deadline.

Black Nativity

Adapted from the stage, this is a retelling of the classic nativity story with an entirely black cast, with carols sung in gospel style.

Fruitvale Station

Based on the true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old man killed by a police officer at a transit station in Oakland, California.

Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas

In this film adapted from a play, a gun-toting grandma makes a surprise Christmas visit to her friend's daughter in the country.

Big Words

A once-promising hip-hop group is reunited in New York City on the night of President Obama's 2008 election.

Mother of George

A newly married Nigerian couple in Brooklyn manage their small restaurant while struggling with fertility issues.

Twelve Years A Slave

The film follows Solomon Northup, a free black who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.