For Whitaker, the part was a welcome return to heavyweight performance (he sometimes played Gaines across three ages in one day), a thread the actor felt he had lost after his Oscar-winning turn as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in 2006's "The Last King of Scotland." But Whitaker said he was "reinvigorated" by the demands of immersing himself in Gaines - listening to interview recordings of the deceased Allen, studying with a butler coach - to create what he calls a "quiet champion."
"Who are the owners of the White House?" said Whitaker, whose performance is being hailed by critics as one of his finest. "In fact, it is the people who own the White House and the presidents are, in a way, visitors. Since the White House staff lives there for 20 to 30 years on a normal basis, it's their home."
Creating the generational conflict of "The Butler" was particularly cathartic for the 53-year-old Daniels who has teenage twins (a son and daughter), and who was the victim of abuse from his policeman father growing up in West Philadelphia.
"Through this now, I understand where the abuse came from," Daniels said. "I understand and I forgive him, finally. He knew no better. His father beat him and his father's father beat him. It stemmed from slavery. It takes a very evolved person not to pass that on to your next generation. I know now why he beat me, because he didn't know any other way of communicating."
"I love him," Daniels said, finally breaking down into tears.
The line of history through "The Butler" runs right up to the present with plenty of contemporary reverberations beyond Obama. The film is a reminder for young audiences of the great accomplishments of an older generation of black Americans, but it also, as Oyelowo says, "contextualizes the America we live in today."
"For me, one of the private privileges was - especially with recent events like Trayvon Martin, with the erosion of the Voting Rights Bill, with the fact that we now have a black president - that it sort of put into context the best and the worst of America," Oyelowo said.
Such context is intensely personal for many, including the film's cast. Winfrey has recently spoken about an incident in Switzerland where a clerk suggested a hand bag was too expensive for her. In February, national news was made when a New York City deli employee frisked Whitaker out of suspicion for shoplifting.
"I've had incidents like that many times in my life," said Whitaker, who would prefer to look at the larger issues than focus on his particular incident. "It's such a broad scope thing. To just say, 'Oh, look what happened in this deli,' when we're talking about things that permeate all over the place."