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Eugene Allen began working at the White House in 1952. Over the course of three decades, he would serve eight presidents and witness the upheavals of the civil rights movement from within 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A new star-studded feature film, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” tells a (slightly) fictionalized version of Allen’s unique life story, while exploring the fraught issues of race and racism in American politics. We talk with the film’s director and the local journalist who uncovered Allen’s story.
- Lee Daniels Director / Producer, "Lee Daniels' The Butler"
- Wil Haygood Reporter, Washington Post; Author, "The Butler: A Witness to History" (Simon and Schuster)
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” Movie Trailer
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFor more than three decades, Eugene Allen had a unique vantage point on American history. As a black butler working in the White House in the midst of the civil rights era, he was literally in the room, seen but not heard, as presidents signed landmark legislation and debated how responses to riots and antiwar protests should unfold. But unlike the first families he served from the Trumans to the Kennedys to the Reagans, the butler and his family experienced these upheavals firsthand, as a black family living in a divided city and country.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHis story went mostly unnoticed for decades until a Washington Post journalist tracked him down in 2008 as a black family prepared to move into the White House for the first time. That article struck a nerve with filmmaker Lee Daniels. His new film "The Butler" tells a slightly fictionalized version of Allen's story. Lee Daniels joins us in studio. He is the director and producer of Lee Daniels' "The Butler" which opens August 16. He previously directed the Oscar-nominated 2009 film "Precious" based on the novel "Pushed by Sapphire." Lee Daniels, thank you for joining us.
MR. LEE DANIELSThank you. We're happy to be here.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Wil Haygood. He is an author and Washington Post writer. His 2008 article "A Butler Well Served by This Election" detailed the life of White House butler Eugene Allen, the inspiration for the character Cecil Gaines, the main character in Lee Daniels' "The Butler." If you have questions or comments -- what do you think or why do you think there aren't more feature films about the civil rights era -- give us a call, 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIWil Haygood, I'll start with you. In some ways the remarkable story of Eugene Allen was lying in plain sight for a journalist for half a century, a black butler served in the White House, eight presidents. But this story went largely unnoticed until your Washington Post article in 2008 shed light on the arc of this man's life. Who was Eugene Allen and how did you find him?
MR. WIL HAYGOODWell, I had been on the 2008 presidential campaign. I was in North Carolina. I was covering then-Sen. Obama, and there was a rally. After the rally, I ran into three young ladies. They were crying. I asked them why. They said their fathers did not want them to support this black candidate. They were white young ladies. Right then and there, I just thought that with that type of emotion and fervent feeling on their part that Obama indeed was going to win. No, it wasn't as powerful as Mamie Till standing over her son's casket, but it seemed to be somewhat of a moment.
MR. WIL HAYGOODWhite fathers in the south are mythical. My daddy this, my daddy that, my daddy this. And so I wanted to find somebody who worked in the White House during the era of segregation. And I start making phone calls and shoe leather just like newspaper people do it. And on the 57th call, a man picked up the phone by the name of...
NNAMDIOn the 57th call.
HAYGOODYep, by the name of Eugene Allen. And I went to visit him. That's how it all started.
NNAMDIYou found this man on Otis Place Northwest, just around the corner from the barbershop that I've been going to for more than 20 years. And I never knew about this man at all. So I'm very jealous of you for having done that. But thank you very much for doing it. What was the process of being able to get him to tell all of these stories?
HAYGOODYou know, he was reticent at first. As a matter of fact I set up in his living room for about three hours before his wife said, okay, you can show him. And, you know, he had this room in the basement under lock and key. It was almost like being dropped into a room at the Smithsonian with mementoes and letters from every president -- eight -- from Harry Truman to Ronald Regan that he had worked for.
HAYGOODI asked him, I said, now you sure nobody, Mr. Allen, has ever written a long narrative about your life? He was so humble. He said, if you think I'm worth it, you'll be the first. It nearly brought tears to my eyes.
NNAMDILee Daniels, I was privileged to see a press preview of this movie Lee Daniels' "The Butler." And I was profoundly impressed by using the lens of this man to look at a particular, well, fairly long period of our country's history. And for you, this was your first directorial foray into this genre of historical fiction. What was it that drew you to this story?
DANIELSThe father and son story at its core, the love affair between the father and his son. And I wasn't -- you know, in all my films, it's really about family. And, you know, I didn't really look at the -- and set out to make an important civil rights movie. I mean, the civil...
NNAMDIBut you did.
DANIELSThank you. That wasn't the intention though in the beginning. It was just really the -- the civil rights movement was the backdrop. Cecil working in the White House was just the backdrop for the heart of the film, which was really the struggle between the father and son. I have a 17-year-old son now. He was 13 when I got the script, so, you know, he -- we were at each other's necks.
DANIELSMy father and I were too when he passed at 13. And I didn't really have a -- I had no idea on how to be a father past 13 because there weren't any examples for me. And so I'd say white, he'd say black. I'd say day, he'd say night. I'd say, go to bed, he'd say, hell, no. So it's -- and so I figured, does this ever stop?
DANIELSDoes any of this -- you know? But in this story, there's a love affair. And it wasn't until we were on -- if you've seen the film -- on the bus where it's hot because it's a period bus. There's no air conditioning, and the kids were afraid. And I'm in the bus directing the kids on the bridge that many black men were lynched at. And I yell, action, and all these KKK members are running towards the bus, and the Nazis and the swastikas and the flames and the crosses and the nasty words and the bus shaking.
DANIELSAnd that goes on for a little bit, and I yell, cut. And they can't hear me because I'm in the bus. And they keep going. And I go, cut. And I look at the window. I'm up at the window screaming, cut. And at that moment, at that exact moment, I realized what these kids were going through.
DANIELSThere was no one there to yell, cut, that these kids were fighting for the soul of our country. And they were willing to take a bullet for what they believed in and that they were heroes. And I realized that it was bigger than just a father-son story. And then I went, uh-oh, now, the pressure's on.
NNAMDII was about to say because it was a father-son story, you're approaching it -- I know this. I can handle it. I've lived this in a lot of ways. But at the point at which you realized that it's an important civil rights story, that immediately puts a lot more pressure on you and a lot more stress on you. Did it become more difficult after that point?
DANIELSYes. At that moment I said, what have I stepped into? I was ready to kill Wil.
DANIELSWhat the heck? And then I had to make sure everything was really accurate. I had to go really, really dig deeper into the research that we were doing -- had done, more documentaries to watch, more footage to see, more books to read. It just didn't end.
NNAMDIIt certainly didn't end for you, but ultimately it did end. One of the things I'm interested in exploring with you is that, during the '60s and the '70s, really even up to now, there was a huge philosophical divide within the black community about the best ways to advance the interests of African-Americans.
NNAMDIShould we work within the system and prove that racist stereotypes are wrong, or should we reject the system, work outside it? By centering this film around a black butler, you set up an interesting lens to explore this question because it's how it evolves between him and his son in the course of that relationship. Talk a little bit about that.
DANIELSThat it's generational. We all want what our parents didn't have or couldn't have. And, you know, I didn't understand that until the end and was going to jump ahead to the -- me and my son again because it all circles back to why I did the movie, me and my son. And so my son saw the movie, and, of course, I thought -- and he's the only person that matters to me as to whether the movie's any good. I just was -- you know, I was ready for him to say, yeah dad, it's not very good.
NNAMDII think the invested might have a slightly different take on that, but go ahead.
DANIELSAnd so -- but he said he loved the movie. And he loved the movie, and he thought it was great. And that made me feel good. And then I said, I know. It's such a great accomplishment, isn't it? He said, yeah, but we got -- he said, but, dad, I want to see Spiderman, but I want to see a black Spiderman. I want to see a black Superman.
DANIELSYou know, I want to see somebody that I can identify with. And I don't know that, though he looks up to Denzel and to Will Smith, these are -- he wants to see an action movie with people that look like him. And I'm thinking to myself, this is exactly the same situation that Cecil and Louis went through except on a different level. Do you know what I mean?
DANIELSAnd so I think that there wasn't -- whose way is right? I don't know. I mean, you know, I think that they were both right, they were both serving their country, and in that scene where we show the duality of Cecil and the butlers at the White House and the kids and Louis at the Woolworth's counter, they both end up -- and the last line is the scene is "to serving our country."
NNAMDIJuxtaposing those scenes. Wil Haygood, are you surprised at what has emerged, what is evolved from that article you first wrote back in 2010?
HAYGOODYeah. What Lee has done with the movie, you know, he even said there's -- he used the article as a seed to plant this vision of a movie in his mind, and I think he -- he went boldly where no other movie director has ever gone. Let's, you know, let's be honest about that. Only Hollywood knows why they have ignored the most epic and humane movement in this nation's history. Lee has said it. The civil rights movement is American history, and it is.
HAYGOODAnd, you know, I'm glad I found this butler, you know, but I'm far more happier that the movie landed in his camera lens, and that he attracted, you know, this magnificent cast, you know. And so it just sort of worked out. My family is from Selma, Alabama. Lee had been working on a movie called "Selma," and I was following that through the press, and when that didn't work out, he turned his attention to this movie. So it really was sort a magical moment for me that had happened the way it did.
NNAMDIWil Haywood is also the author of the book that accompanies the movie. It's called, "The Butler: A Witness to History" by Wil Haygood with a forward by Lee Daniels. They both join us in studio. We're going to take a short break. When we come back if you have called we'll get to your calls. If not, the number is 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Lee Daniels. He is the director and producer of "Lee Daniels' The Butler," the movie which opens August 16th. He's previously directed the Oscar nominated 2009 film, "Precious," based on the novel "Push" by Sapphire. He joins us in studio with Wil Haygood who is an author and Washington Post writer. His 2008 article, "A Butler Well Served By This Election," detailed the life of White House butler Eugene Alan, who was inspiration for the main character in "Lee Daniels' The Butler," Cecil Gaines.
NNAMDILee Daniels, this movie features a laundry list of well-known actors from Oprah Winfrey to Forest Whitaker, Cuba Gooding, Jr., John Cusack, Robin Williams, Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave. It's still my understanding that finding investors proved difficult. Why was that do you think? People don't -- I guess I don't either, understand the process that takes place in Hollywood.
DANIELSWell, the studio, Sony Pictures, they have a model, and the model is, is that certain films, dramas, black dramas, can be made for a specific amount of money, and they won't step out of that box or take chance for that. And I respect that. I don't agree with it, but I respect it because they developed it. You know, they developed the story for me, and so -- and they were kind enough to let the material go so that we could go and raise the money for it.
DANIELSThey could have kept the story and not, you know, and made it difficult for us to even tell this story. But I think that it's tragic that they underestimate the intelligence of Americans because we want to hear stories like these. We want to see stories like these, and -- yeah. So what we did was we -- Pam Williams, who took over from Laura Ziskin, the beautiful Laura Ziskin.
NNAMDIAfter she passed.
DANIELSBeautiful woman who connected -- which is the reason why I'm here today. She's, you know, she left the last -- she did "Pretty Woman," and then she did the "Spiderman" franchise. And she left that last "Spiderman" movie to work on this film and left -- she was -- and she also created Stand Up For Cancer, and -- that huge organization that raises money for cancer. And in her will, she even left money for the development of this film, which was just incredible.
DANIELSAnd so -- and she -- days before she died, she was raising money from her death bed. We had Skyped -- because she was studio girl. She was a studio girl, so she didn't know how to raise independent money for cinema. And I said, come on, girl. I have been doing it since "Monster's Ball." Welcome. Let me teach you a couple things.
NNAMDIThat's true. You did "Monster's Ball," too. Yeah.
DANIELSLet's just -- let me show you how. And that's what made her so beautiful that she was able to open up and be receptive to learning how to raise money on the streets. And my very last conversation with her was through Skype. She had ran into this woman who had hit the lotto, black woman that hit the lotto. And she called me from Santa Monica on a Tuesday. She said, Lee, we got a live one. She hit the number. And I said, okay.
DANIELSShe says, I'll meet you downstairs in the living room. Go on Skype right now. She's in the living room. So I got on the Skype, and this woman had hit the number. And we did our song and dance trying to get that money, and she went upstairs in her bed. And on Thursday, she went into a coma and never came back. She died Saturday.
NNAMDIWow. So this is all a tribute to her. But Wil talked about the fact that he was proud that his article provided you with the vision. Obviously, you were able to persuade all of these very famous actors to share that vision and then direct them. How difficult is that process?
DANIELSThe direction to the actors?
DANIELSWell, I think it all starts with the story, and Wil's story was what spoke to me and spoke certainly to the talent, you know, Danny Strong inclusive, the script writer. You know, we were -- it all starts -- that's the embryo of where it cometh. And so -- yeah, because we're fantastic, you know. We have no ego on sets. The only ego in the film, on my side, is the film. And so all egos are checked at the door. Limousines, Oprah showed up with just a driver to take her back and forth to the hotel.
DANIELSNone at all. And, you know, and Cecil, Forest Whitaker is the most humble of gentlemen. And so it trickled down with him, and they dealt with my direction. They opened themselves up. You know, Oprah could not have been more beautiful where, you know, she is -- I mean, one would think -- and it was intimidating at first directing her.
DANIELSBut she is -- because she comes in with the Oprah, you know. And so once you un-Oprah her, you find this very vulnerable, fragile, raw, hungry actress that's just anxious to please. And so that trickled down to the other actors, Jane Fonda, and Vanessa Redgrave and John Cusack, et cetera, et cetera.
NNAMDIHere is Emmanuel in Northwest Washington. Emmanuel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EMMANUELGreat topic, Kojo. And I just want to commend the gentlemen there for, you know, being able to do such a great topic. But just to answer your question earlier, Kojo...
EMMANUEL...of, you know, why stories like this are probably as rare as they are is just that a lack of appreciation for it, you know, within our country, and sadly to save even within our own community. But I do want to say that there is a book that it reminds me of, and that is "Vernon Can Read!" about Vernon Jordan's autobiography...
EMMANUEL...and how he was like the butler of this very wealthy guy I think in Atlanta somewhere, or in the south, and how he saw a lot of things that go on that never really made it out to the general public until he wrote his book. And so a great topic, again, thank you very much, and again, an all-star cast.
NNAMDIWell, please remember Emmanuel, Vernon Jordan is still very much with us. He's still around. So he'll probably be able to see this movie himself. Wil Haygood, there's often considered to be a separation between the White House, official Washington, and the rest of this city. The real Washington as we would like to think if it, the Washington of the neighborhoods. Eugene Alan had to balance working in the White House but living in this city during an extremely tumultuous time. How did the city and living in it affect his story?
HAYGOODOh, I think in epic ways. He was in the White House and heard the echoes and the ripples of the Emmett Till murder, the Medgar Evers murder, the four young girls bombed to death in the 16th Street Baptist church, the three missing civil rights workers, Goodman and Chaney, and Schwerner, the Cold War, the Korean War, Sputnik, man on the moon, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, Jack Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. King.
HAYGOODSo all that, you know, passed across his brow, and he heard all of the presidents deal with these things, and then he had to take that home at night to his wife. And I -- of course anybody would be curious, hey, what'd you hear today at the White House? Are they going to find those three kids down in Mississippi? Are troops going to Little Rock to help the black kids' inner central high school? And so, yes, he lived in...
NNAMDIOne of the things that Lee Daniels does very well in this movie, if I may say so, is present a picture of home life in that situation.
HAYGOODIt's beautiful. It's beautiful. Yeah.
NNAMDIHe, you know, he comes home and you know he has to come home every night to the neighborhood with neighbors who are hanging out on the porch et cetera. But back to the White House, Lee, this film has many of the presidents during that 34-year period of the butler's time in the White House including a James Marsden portrayed Jack Kennedy and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. How difficult is it to direct actors to play people who are already so well known, and so ingrained in the American psyche?
DANIELSAbsolutely terrifying. And -- but that leads back to Oprah too, you know. I like to change people's perceptions of who we think they are to un-know them. And so -- and this was particularly hard with the butlers -- I mean, with the butlers in the White House with the presidents because, like, you know, you make a choice. You have to make a choice very quickly, you know, do you get a bunch of unknowns to play them, or do you get -- or do you make it an event? And -- because the event you can, you know, the event can work against you. So, you know, I decided that it needed to be an event.
DANIELSThis story deserved the event, and that, you know, I wanted people in Idaho and Nebraska and Oklahoma, people that ordinarily wouldn't come out to see just an African-American story, but an American story. And so I think that, you know, they all came aboard because the writing was good and that they're not just celebrities but that they're thespians with a political awareness, each of them.
DANIELSAnd they knew that it wasn't just a movie really, but a movement, that they really, really, really were behind it, and behind me, and they came to work for free and to deal with me screaming at them and running around the set like a madman demanding more and more and more and more and never good enough, more, more.
NNAMDIWil, we're running out of time very quickly, but Eugene passed away in March of 2010 before Lee or the actor portraying him as Cecil Gaines, Forest Whitaker, had an opportunity to meet him. What do you think he would feel about this movie if he were able to see it?
HAYGOODI think he would be dazzled. I've seen the movie, and I was spellbound and dazzled as well. I mean, it's unlike anything we've seen in American cinema. It really is. You know, and I think it's a movie for the red states and the blue states, and all the states in between, and all the countries in the world. I really do.
NNAMDILee Daniels, the movie "Lee Daniels' The Butler" hits theaters in America August 16. What are you hoping people take away from this movie?
DANIELSThat though we have come a very long way, we still have a long way to go.
DANIELSYeah. I think so. I think that we have a long way to go, and we've got a lot of healing to do, and we have to be able to not be afraid to discuss race in America. We have to look at it honestly, and we haven't been able to look at it honestly. We, you know, we slide around it, and we don't look it dead on.
NNAMDIWell, you'll be looking at it dead on in "Lee Daniels' The Butler." It opens August 16. Lee Daniels, thank you so much for joining us in studio. Good luck to you. What's your next project?
DANIELSI don't know. I think it's the Janis Joplin story. I'm doing something -- a Janis Joplin story for Focus with Amy Adams.
NNAMDIOh, good. Well, you know, they had it hear at Arena Stage, the play here, so we'll be looking forward to seeing if that comes to fruition. Wil Haygood is author and Washington Post writer. His 2008 article, "A Butler Well Served By This Election," detailed the life of White House butler, Eugene Alan, and it lead to all of this. Wil Haygood, good to see you again.
HAYGOODThank you very much.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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