The Butler: A Witness to History - Wil Haygood

From Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellow Wil Haygood comes a mesmerizing inquiry into the life of Eugene Allen, the butler who ignited a nation's imagination and inspired a major motion picture: Lee Daniels' The Butler, the highly anticipated film that stars six Oscar winners, including Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey (honorary and nominee), Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr., Vanessa Redgrave, and Robin Williams; as well as Oscar nominee Terrence Howard, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Alex Pettyfer, Alan Rickman, and Liev Schreiber. With a foreword by the Academy Award nominated director Lee Daniels, The Butler not only explores Allen's life and service to eight American Presidents, from Truman to Reagan, but also includes an essay, in the vein of James Baldwin’s jewel The Devil Finds Work, that explores the history of black images on celluloid and in Hollywood, and fifty-seven pictures of Eugene Allen, his family, the presidents he served, and the remarkable cast of the movie.







Author Wil Haygood brings to light the true-life story of Eugene Allen, an African-American man who served as a butler in the White House for 35 years, serving eight different presidents! His time at the White House covered the presidential administrations of Harry Truman through to Ronald Reagan. Allen even shared a birthday with President Ford. :-)


Born in 1911, Eugene Allen grew up working various servant positions within white-owned hotels and private residences. During the Depression he found work at a Washington D.C. country club, which eventually led him to his first job at the White House, starting out as a member of the pantry staff. Funny thing was, when asked about those early years, Allen admits that he wasn't even looking for a job (being satisfied with the position at the country club at the time). But he knew that a White House position would hold great prestige, so why not go for it! 


His starting position on pantry staff earned him $2400 a year. Within just a few years, his hard work and dedication to precision got him a promotion to full-fledged butler. One of the most notable moments after this promotion was being there for President Kennedy's celebration for the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, a fete which included such guests as Langston Hughes & Sammy Davis, Jr. How amazing that night must have been! {Eugene's son, Charles, later mentions that the one and only time he ever saw his father cry was when he got the news of Kennedy's assassination.} Eugene Allen was also there to witness other meetings between prominent figures of Black History. Tragic to read how Booker T. Washington was invited to dine with the president one night but had to be escorted in and out of the White House under the cover of night to avoid an incidents with protesters.


Not gonna lie, I felt a little cheated with this one. I picked it up because I wanted to know more about the man behind the movie (Eugene Allen, the real butler, that is). What I felt like I got was an expanded version of the Washington Post article this story originated from. In its entirety, this book is just under 100 pages. Yes, the first half does introduce us to Mr. Allen and his story but I didn't feel like it was enough. Also, I was a little disappointed that Haygood reveals his motivation for finding and meeting Eugene Allen had nothing really to do with the man himself, but more to do with wanting to ride the wave of excitement that was going around the first presidential campaign of Barack Obama. He pretty much just says that he knew he needed to find another powerful story of another African-American that people could get caught up in. While I understand the journalistic motivation, it felt like this story could have benefited from focusing just a little more on Eugene's story itself, not just what it represented in the bigger picture. I was also a little disappointed to read that President Obama didn't seem to make more of an effort to get to know Mr. Allen. But it's pointed out that Allen not only voted for Obama, but stood out in freezing temperatures and himself in declining health to witness the inaugural ceremonies. When Allen passed, the Obamas sent over a bouquet of roses and a canned response letter, read by an administrative aide about Allen's "years of service, patriotism" etc. Obama takes Air Force One a few times a year to my town just to eat at a rib joint here and I'm states away. Shame more couldn't be done for a man having a funeral in the SAME TOWN. 


So all that only covers half of this little book. The second half focuses more on the film adaptation of Eugene Allen's story (starring Forest Whitaker as Allen) and its role in the history of African American cinema as a whole. The second half of the book also looks at other influential movies and actors such as Sidney Poitier and his performances in such pivotal films as In The Heat Of The Night, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, and, one of my all-time faves, Lilies Of The Field.



Historical tidbit here: Poitier was the first black male to be nominated for and win an Oscar -- for his Lilies of The Field role, btw. He was up against actors Albert Finney, Richard Harris and Paul Newman. It wouldn't be until nearly 40 years later that another black man would be nominated. FORTY YEARS! That nomination went to Denzel Washington for Training Day, which I believe he also won.



So while what is here of Eugene Allen's story is compelling and an important read, I again say I wish there had been more attention put on that story itself, rather than just making it a blip in a larger topic. This short read will provide a means -- for those wanting to be more informed on Black History -- to dip their toes into before tackling weightier and more painful reads (which should also be read, for a well-balanced education). I just wish the guest of honor had been better honored himself.






Thoughts on movie adapt:


The film is not a direct translation of Eugene Allen's life. Rather, what the screenwriters have done is craft the character of Cecil Gaines, largely inspired by the life of Eugene Allen. The confusing part is it follows Eugene's life SO closely, it feels a little jarring when something different from what Wil Haygood mentioned in his original writings is introduced. The strongest example of this is the way Cecil Gaines' wife, played by Oprah Winfrey in the film, is portrayed as a closet alcoholic with a jealous streak. Hard to match that up with the way Haygood describes Eugene's sweet natured wife!


But that little nitpicking aside, the film is pretty riveting stuff. And it doesn't play around. Director Lee Daniels opens the movie right away with an opening shot of two lynching victims! Almost all the portrayals were incredibly impressive, even the ones I questioned when I first heard who was up for what part when this film was being cast. The ones I was most unsure about were John Cusack (though I'm a big fan!) playing Nixon and James Marsden playing JFK (I thought his face might look a little too young to pull it off). Both were honestly believable though! Cusack somehow managed to nail Nixon's skeevy mannerisms, LOL. I also liked Liev Schrieber's LBJ and Robin William's Eisenhower. Of course, now, there's a tinge of sadness to watching Williams in films but it dawned on me that this movie marked a reuniting between him and Forest Whitaker (who played Cecil Gaines) since they made the movie Good Morning, Vietnam. So that was pretty cool to see!


Also neat to see Lenny Kravitz & Mariah Carey in stripped down, almost-no-makeup looks. In the DVD extras, Kravitz even talks about the process and the appeal to him to do something that required him to take out / off all his jewelry, lose the sunglasses and just bare his face again. I think my favorite portrayal though was the work done by Cuba Gooding Jr, who played a close friend and co-worker of Gaines. His character also serves as a sort of father figure to Gaines' eldest son when things become tense between the son & Cecil. 


The one big bummer for me was watching Alan Rickman's portrayal of Ronald Reagan. Another favorite actor of mine (and again, bums me to think he's gone too now!) but man, I could not get on board with his Reagan. He kind of got the squinting look down, but it was a little too stiff and weird for me. 


I think this film serves as a way for people who didn't live through this time to see the reality of the history in a way that books might not successfully convey. In the later portions of the film in particular, it's shown that as late as 1985 Cecil Gaines is STILL fighting for equal pay for the black kitchen and housekeeping staff members at the White House. Fictional character, I know, but some vein of truth / believe-ability in there I'm sure. 


Also, definitely check out the song Gladys Knight & Lenny Kravitz did for the film -- "You And I Ain't Nothin' No More" -- powerful!