Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” has opened in theaters. The highly anticipated film delivers the director’s biggest cast to date, which includes Forrest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Vanessa Redgrave, Robin Williams, Liev Schriebner, John Cusack, Jane Fonda and David Oyelowo. The list of talent behind the movie runs like a river for the story of an unstated African-American White House butler who served under eight presidents. While the character is fictional, the script is inspired by a 2008 article by Wil Haygood in The Washington Post that ran the week of President Barack Obama’s election to office.
Something about the previews suggests that this is a period piece on civil rights in America like no other. For one, the hero is neither an iconic African-American, nor a guilt-ridden Caucasian sympathizer. He is the everyday gentleman, a noble proletariat. Someone as a familiar as a grandfather. But to further distinguish the theater experience, Lee Daniels has penned the forward to a book from Haygood that is very much a Playbill for what is expected to be one of the year’s finest features.
The book The Butler: A Witness to History, already a New York Times bestseller, delves further into the story Eugene Allen, the subject of Haygood’s rousing article that attracted over 1,000 letters of appreciation from readers from around the world within the week of its publication. Years later, it is an incredibly poignant portrait of man who made a living as a butler to eight U.S. Presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. It responds to the thought that runs through every reader’s mind at the beat of the final line: I want to know more.
For Allen, his life received an unexpected ovation. The article offered the only thing that could possibly top being honored by the Reagans, who invited him and his wife Helene to attend a state dinner as their guests—Allen, accompanied by Haygood, was among the VIP guests to Mr. Obama’s inauguration in 2009. When he died the following year, his obituary ran in The New York Times.
So where the film is a fictional account that takes inspiration from Allen’s life, this book unveils more of the everyday, and also unanticipated, nuances of an article that rested well into the hearts of the world and what it meant to its protagonist.
Adaptations are often adventures. For Haygood, the seasoned biographer who has covered the lives of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Sammy Davis Jr., and Sugar Ray Robinson, it was a welcome extension of a story in a significant repertoire. Like many of his pieces, this, his most celebrated, is rooted in his career of observations on race and power. This time his work became a collaborative process. “Lee is a very inventive, creative person. He directs with his heart. It is like watching a great coach,” Haygood says of the film-making process, a perspective that anchors the second half of the book, which is an essay on the history of black film-making.
A consultant on the film, who in his career as a journalist has crossed paths with one civil rights greatest villains, George Wallace, the experience offered a moment of full circle retrospective. Haygood suggests that given the differences in watching a film and reading a book, notably that with film the audience is an active participant in interpreting the story, where with book the audience observes, it was an exciting new exposure for the well-versed journalist.
Allen recalls, “We are coming up on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. I grew up in an integrated environment, and then in 1968, my family moved to the Allen Projects. That, of course, was a year rooted in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., but after that period what I remember most was the sepia world in which I was living. Men like Eugene Allen. Men with a regular sense of dignity who probably worked in service roles, but always looked the gentle.”
While the film is not Allen’s story, it was a nod to a man whose life reached a stage upon which he was accustomed to working in the wing, Haygood notes, “He never lived as an icon. He was rarely the most important person in the room.” It is easy to glean from the book, however, that Eugene Allen was, in fact, quite often the most beloved.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is the must-see movie of the weekend, but whether or not you make it to the theater right away, this book is a must read. It possesses the nostalgia and point of view that offer the perfect sense of satisfaction for an easy and important summer escape.
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