Everyone, regardless of whether they are a supporter or detractor of Lee Daniels’ film “The Butler” should read acclaimed Washington Post writer Wil Haygood’s short, yet comprehensive and valuable companion book. “The Butler, A Witness to History” (Atria/Simon & Schuster) expands the remarkable 2009 feature story Haygood did on Eugene Allen, the man who served as a butler to eight presidents over a 34-year period.
It is painfully clear from some of the uninformed, at times unreasonable and often borderline offensive commentary aimed at the project that’s made its way into the cyberspace world, that plenty of folks who’ve neither seen the film nor read the book nonetheless feel obligated to weigh in on the subject.
First, while director Daniels’ has written a foreword to the book, the cinematic version of Allen’s tale bears minimal resemblance to the far more compelling personal story. Only four presidents’ administrations are covered in the movie. The general portrayal of a man whose time under different White House leaders mirrors the nation’s difficult struggles to achieve social justice and equality is accurate, but cannot be adequately shown in a commercial vehicle.
Second, the struggles within the Allen family (one son in Vietnam, the other involved in the Black power movement) are much more complex than the soap opera and rhetorical splices that are incorporated within the film. Haygood, who spent many weeks with family members, provides a far more nuanced story about the father/son disputes, while documenting an amazing love story between Allen and his longtime wife Helene.
Third, many who’ve criticized Daniels’ production find it just the latest in a long line of films that trot out domestics as black America’s primary symbol. Haygood’s book shows there was really nothing servile about what Allen and others working in the White House did, even though they were in the service business.
Indeed, Allen was not only a witness to history, but became good enough friends with Eisenhower and Ford to play golf with them, and was once invited along with his wife to be guests at a state dinner for the German chancellor.
“The Butler” integrates multiple stories within a short structure. The one about Allen’s life, family and accomplishments proves to be the most intriguing and compelling. Allen not only worked under eight different presidents, but during eras that included such events as the Cuban missile crisis and Vietnam wars, Civil Rights and social justice movements, Watergate and the battle over divestment in South Africa.
Here was a man who at one time was on a plantation, but would spend close to four decades at the seat of power. Those who would just dismiss him as nothing more than someone setting tables and handing out utensils will discover a far more involved person, and someone who mastered the art of acquiring information, but never revealing it.
The one lingering question unresolved after reading Haygood’s book was how he felt about some of the actions done by some of his bosses. There are places where this question gets answered, but other times you’re left wondering how did he feel about Nixon and the tapes, or Reagan’s indifference for many years to the plight of Nelson Mandela.
But by the time Haygood encounters Allen, he’s already retired and dealing with the rigors of old age. One of the most moving passages concerns Allen’s determination to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama. His beloved Helene died before he took office, and Allen was dealing with various infirmities, but he absolutely would not stay home.
There’s a second inspiring story about the film’s inner workings that detail the battle it took to get it made, and the sacrifices that many among the cast and crew were willing to undergo.
The great producer Laura Ziskin (“Pretty Woman,” “As Good As It Gets,” the Spider-Man films) fought to get financing for it, even as she was dying from breast cancer. Ziskin didn’t live to see it made, but her devotion is a major part of the story. So is the willingness of top actors, makeup people, designers and writers to work for scale in order to save money and keep the film’s budget down.
The material that’s less interesting (at least for those familiar with black film and American history) are the sections on African-American cinematic evolution and the attitudes of the various presidents on racial issues. It’s not that this isn’t important stuff. It’s just been examined, outlined and presented in far more detail many other times and places. It comes across in Haygood’s book as worthy factual data, but there’s very little that’s new, and it doesn’t retain reader interest like his vivid descriptions of Allen’s exploits.
“The Butler: A Witness to History” should get just as much, if not more, attention than the film which uses its story for thematic foundation. Wil Haygood adds Eugene Allen’s chronicle to his impressive list of essential works on great figures in black and American history.