Moviegoers often pay $7.50 to $12 for a movie, spout off their opinions and go about their business. And every once in awhile they see a movie worth knowing, "How did this get made?" For fans of "Lee Daniels' 'The Butler,'" the book "The Butler: A Witness to History" by author and associate producer Wil Haygood answers some of those questions.
In the film, Cecil Gaines (the character based on real-life butler Eugene Allen, played by Forest Whitaker) is noticeably quiet about politics. His wife, Gloria Gaines (based on Helene Allen, played by Oprah Winfrey), was more outspoken but mainly about fashion and White House visits. But what were the Allens like?
When journalist Haygood decided to make 40 calls to track down the black employee who worked at the White House in the 1950s, he was met with a few obstacles. However, once he got ahold of Eugene Allen, that home visit to D.C. was one he'd never forget. From the descriptions provided in the book, the Allens and Gaines are mirror images of each other, just with one son versus two. And like in the movie, Helene Allen wasn't shy at all. She gushed over her political experiences but was just as quick to order Eugene Allen to show Haygood a photograph of the couple with jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald.
Whether you read Haygood's Washington Post article "'The Butler: A Witness to History' by Wil Haygood" about the butler who worked for eight presidents before or after the movie, the book gives an overview of why there was some creative license in the film.
Considering "the first things a domestic hire at the White House is told: do not talk about politics," it only makes sense that Eugene Allen played the background around presidents, not only to be safe during those times but to keep his job for 34 years.
However, if you're looking for a book where we really get to hear Eugene Allen's raw thoughts on each president, this isn't it. Either he still lived by that code or Haygood decided to keep those conversations between the two.
But Haygood gives details about what it's like inside Eugene Allen's basement full of historical photographs. The book includes a few black and white and color shots from the collection, such as a fascinating shot of Eugene Allen having an impromptu party for the Kennedy children after the Kennedy assassination. A couple more interesting shots are of Martin Luther King Sr., and Michael Jackson in the White House.
The book also gives a rundown of the struggle for "Lee Daniels' The Butler" to be made, as well as how and when the cast signed on. But what stood out most was the struggle that producer Pam Williams, director Lee Daniels, former BET co-founder Sheila Johnson and producer Laura Ziskin went through to finance the film. Ziskin not only fought to bring in investors for the film, but she also struggled with breast cancer.
But before she died on June 12, 2011, she made the rest of the team promise to continue on with raising money to get the film made. Actors took pay cuts. Some worked "for scale" (minimum wage by the actors' union). But all came aboard to tell the butler's story. Haygood discusses how the actors felt during certain scenes, specifically at an Underground Railroad location, and filming Ku Klux Klan attacks, sit-ins and bus boycotts. And all the while there was news of a hurricane in New Orleans where they were filming.
This 96-page book could've gone on for several more chapters, but it's an easy, short read that would be a great stocking stuffer while waiting for the film to release for purchase on Jan. 14 next year.
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