When journalist Wil Haygood first profiled Eugene Allen, a White House butler who had served eight presidents, in a 2008 Washington Post article, Allen was a little-known witness to decades of American history and Civil Rights achievements. But thanks to Haygood’s deep reporting and rich storytelling, Allen, who died in 2010, is quickly working his way up to a household name. Haygood’s book about Allen’s life, The Butler: A Witness to History, was released last month. And on Friday, August 16th, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, starring Forest Whitaker in the title role and Oprah Winfrey as Allen’s wife, hits theaters.
We spoke to Haygood about what inspired him to write about Allen and how Allen would feel about inspiring a star-studded Hollywood drama.
Even though Eugene Allen had retired long before the 2008 election, in what ways did Obama’s election lead you to your original story?
I was covering a Barack Obama campaign rally in Chapel Hill, NC, in 2008. After the rally I stepped outside. I heard some young ladies crying. I asked what was wrong. They said their fathers had stopped speaking to them because they supported this black candidate. From that emotional moment, I felt that Obama was going to win. That fathers would be defied and he would win. And I wanted to find someone who had worked in the White House during the era of segregation and tell their story up to this historic moment. (Of course it did help that the candidate who was causing those young ladies to cry tears of joy won!)
How did you expand upon your Washington Post story about Eugene Allen for the book?
I expanded the newspaper story by going deeper into the life of Eugene Allen, and telling about his being invited to the 2009 inauguration and those months leading up to his death in 2010. I also write about the history of blacks in the motion picture industry while telling about the arduous efforts to get the film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, made.
What would Allen have thought about there being a book and a movie based on his life?
Eugene Allen was a very humble and dignified man. He never sought glory. I think he would be extremely touched that a director such as Lee Daniels and actors such as Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Robin Williams, and David Oyelowo, among others, all were so inspired with his life story to takes parts in the film.
What were your favorite stories that Allen told about the presidents he served? Which relationships do you think were most important to him? The most challenging?
I think Eugene Allen thought Richard Nixon was a rather beguiling figure inside the White House. He thought Nixon was too quiet, which of course made him too loud at the same time.
What were the biggest changes in the U.S. and the White House from the time Allen started there to the time when he left?
The changes from when Eugene Allen started as a pantry man at the White House in 1952 to when he left in 1986 as maitre d—in essence the top butler—were profound. There were civil rights bills in 1964 and 1965 which gave him full citizenship rights and protected his right to vote. There were black politicians elected in the South in unprecedented numbers. And needless to say, the most profound change in his lifetime was that he witnessed, in person, an African American take the oath of office.
The film is fictionalized, but in what ways does it remain true to Allen’s story? How does it differ?
I think the overall arc of the film—black butler in the White House through eight administrations—is vividly true to Mr. Allen’s life. But Lee Daniels is like a painter: He has only 2 hours of screen time to capture more than 80 years in a movie. Any dramatic licenses that were taken, to me, seemed to be taken quite smartly within the context and texture of the overall film. I think Lee did a remarkable and astonishing job.
What was it like seeing Allen portrayed onscreen?
It’s been extremely emotional seeing him portrayed on the screen. I’m a child of the 60s, and I recall my grandparents, who hailed from that civil rights soaked city of Selma, Alabama, talk about the land they had escaped. This is a movie about a butler but also about the modern civil rights movement in this nation.
What are you most looking forward to about the release of the book and film?
The book release excites me because it gave me a chance to delve deeper into the story. It was a joy—despite vivid deadline pressures—doing this book because it gave me a chance to work with one of the great editors of our time in Dawn Davis, who publishes under her own imprint, 37 Ink, at Atria books, a division of Simon & Schuster. As for the movie, I once had aspirations of an acting career. I obviously didn’t make it. This film is like a dream given the fact that there are so many actors and actresses involved whose work I love, and the weight of the story is something very important.
What do you see as the value in telling Allen’s story “from the back pages of history”?
The value of telling Eugene Allen’s unknown story can be summed up in one word to me: spirituality. There is something very spiritual about his story and the telling of it to the world. He was not a man with power. And yet, he touched lives. And he witnessed history. That biblical line—the last shall be first— makes me think of him.