*Several classic novels after adapted for the big screen became classic films – Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” quickly comes to mind along with “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck and “To Kill a Mockingbird” written by Harper Lee to name just a few.
“The Butler: A Witness to History” is sure to be added to that list of classic novels. Washington Post national reporter Wil Haygood penned the story about Eugene Allen, a White House butler for 34 years – which gives you more depth about the man you see portrayed in director Lee Daniels “The Butler.”
Daniels got the idea for “The Butler” (now officially titled “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”) from Haygood’s 2008 article entitled “A Butler Well Served By This Election.”
In the movie Academy Award winning actor Forest Whitaker gives a riveting performance as the butler, whose name is Cecil Gaines.
“It’s very important that this unsung man from the back pages of history, from the shadows, who lived at the most powerful address in the world, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and worked 34 years as a butler that his story be told,” Haygood, an associate producer on the film, stresses in an exclusive interview.
He deftly points out that “Eugene Allen was in the White House when so many things happened in this country. He heard the echoes or heard the conversations about the murder of Emmit Till, about the murder of Medgar Evers, about the beginning of the student sit-in movements in North Carolina, South Carolina. He heard the echoes about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
Haygood’s book and the subsequent movie from it are about more than a quiet man who served eight Presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan.
“His life is a window into history. He came out of the era of segregation and the time of lynchings in this country. The fact that he lived throughout all these momentous changes is very amazing to me. I wanted people to know that it’s not only the famous who need their life story told – but it’s the unknown and unsung as well,” Haygood says.
Allen had a quiet graciousness about him and believed in giving back to others. It’s not often talked about Haygood says, but he was responsible for something unheard of decades ago – small business owners, who were Black, getting temporary jobs in the White House.
“In the early ‘60’s say if the White House was having some event – Mr. Allen would go around Washington to get the best African American butcher he could find. And he would say ‘Hey look I want to get you a little weekend work in three weekends on a contract basis to come over to the White House and slice some turkey for me.’ For this unknown man to all of sudden be working at the White House for a weekend to go back and tell his wife ‘Hey honey guess what next week I’m working at the White House for President Eisenhower.’
He also fought against discrimination at the White House – helping fellow Black butlers and other domestic help paid wages lower than their White counterparts get raises, albeit after many years of trying.
When asked what was the most surprising thing he learned after he completed the book Haygood replied, “He was part of the vanguard who created the Black middle class. That’s one of the things that Oprah Winfrey said to me is why she wanted to play his wife in the movie.”
Eugene and his wife Helene were married for 65 years.
Mrs. Allen could not contain her joy that Haygood was writing a book about her husband and let it be known following his visit to their home one Friday in 2008.
Their only child, Charles, dropped by the house that same weekend, on Sunday, and she couldn’t wait to tell him, “Charles I’m so happy. I’m just over the moon happy.”
When he asked her why, his mother said, “There’s a writer who came by and he’s going to write the story about my Eugene. Somebody finally after all these years is finally going to pay attention to my husband.”
But this would turn out to be a bittersweet weekend. After Mrs. Allen told her son that she was at peace she went upstairs to bed. Sadly Mrs. Allen would die in her sleep causing her son to say “mama was waiting on you” when talking about the tragedy to Haygood.
She passed away the day before then Senator Barack Obama would be elected the first African American president. Allen died two years after her at the age of 90.
Haywood‘s audio book will be a special treat because Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey will be among those reading their characters.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” opening August 16, also stars Mariah Carey, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Terrence Howard.
See more of Tene’s interview with Will Haygood in this video:
Reach Tene’ at [email protected]