The Butler: Eugene Allen - Book and Film Review

White House Butlers

Mr. Eugene Allen (second from right) worked from 1952 to 1986 as a pantryman, a butler, and finally, the Maître d’.  Eugene Allen photo album, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
Mr. Eugene Allen (second from right) worked from 1952 to 1986 as a pantryman, a butler, and finally, the Maître d’. Eugene Allen photo album, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. | Source

The Witness To 20th Century American History

Starting as a pantry worker in the White House in 1952, Eugene Allen (1919 - 2010) earned consistent promotions throughout 34 years of service to become the Maitre'd or head butler of the President's home and office complex.

Allen lived from just after the end of World War I until 2010 and the official end of the Great Recession, halfway through US President Barack Obama's first term. Allen was honored by an invitation to attend the Presidential Inauguration.

In the film The Butler (2013), Forrest Whitaker plays Allen, although the character is named Cecil Gaines. Oprah Winfrey plays the butler's wife. The book on which the movie is based, The Butler: Witness to History, was written by Wil Haygood and maintains historical accuracy.

White House Workers: Traditions and Memories

White House Workers: Traditions and Memories
White House Workers: Traditions and Memories

Directed by Marjorie Hunt, this documentary filmed for the Smithsonian Institution for 2009 features Eugene Allen and several other workers.

 

Professionalism and Duty In the White House

Author Wil Haygood describes Eugene Allen as one of a cohort of African American men that served steadfastly with honor during times that sought to rip them apart emotionally and politically. It was not easy to be a White House Butler.

Haygood holds these men up as examples of goodness and strength in society.

Mr. Allen served under eight US Presidents - Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan - even though politics shifted with each change of command and his own son served in Viet Nam with the US Military. Allen was nothing but professional on the job. Until recently, such stories of the White House staff have not been shared with the public.

Banquet at the White House, 1955

Butler Eugene Allen, front right.
Butler Eugene Allen, front right. | Source

Mr. Haygood had wondered since his childhood about the role of Black butlers among whites in America, as far back as the Old West portrayed in TV series. He made up his mind to find such a man in White House history after he saw a group of women crying on Election Night 2008.

They were white women crying because they had voted for Barack Obama and their fathers, in relatilation, refused to speak to them. Mr. Haygood set out to find someone on the White House staff who had served through such political changes long term and he found Eugene Allen.

Butler Eugene Allen, far right, with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1950s.
Butler Eugene Allen, far right, with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1950s. | Source

“You hear nothing, you say nothing. You only serve.” --

Instructions given to White House butlers in The Butler (2013)

American History from WWI to the Great Recession

Eugene Allen saw Harry S. Truman give up the White House to Dwight D. Eisenhower, followed by the Korean War. The Space Race began. John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and Allen declined the invitation to attend the state funeral - he felt his place was at the White House to work to ensure that there was enough to feed everyone after the funeral.

Civil Rights and Viet Nam were sources of turmoil under Lyndon Johnson and Allen's son Charles fought in the war. Nixon and Watergate came next, and the end of the Viet Nam conflict in disgrace. Ford's was a short lived presidency. Carter's saw gas rationing, among other events; and Reagan promotod Eugene Allen to Matre' d. First Lady Nancy reagan refused to allow him to work one evening, insisting that he attend a state dinner as a guest. Even though the public is aware of Mr. Allen's contributions only since the late 2000s, the families in the White House seemed to have appreciated him.

Lee Daniel's The Butler

  • Running Time: 2hr. 12 min.
  • Rating PG-13
  • Release Date: early release, late-night August 15, 2013.

Selected Cast:

  • Cecil Gaines (Eugene Allen) - Forrest Whitaker
  • Glora Gaines (Helene Allen) - Oprah Winfrey
  • Robin Williams - President Eisenhower
  • James Marsden - President Kennedy
  • Liev Schreiber - President Johnson
  • John Cusack - President Nixon
  • Alan Rickman - President Reagan
  • Jane Fonda - Nancy Reagan
  • Orland Eric Street - President Obama

Thoughts

Presidents Truman, Ford, and Carter are not portrayed in this film and I do not know why Carter was eliminated. The other two may have been deleted to save time.

Strong performances are given by additional actors as White House staff and other important characters, including Mariah Carey, Terrence Howard, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Lenny Kravitz. The cast list is very long.

Some horrid and brutal scenes from the cottonfields during the days of Jim crow are enlightening and set up a foundation for the historical changes that Gaines/Allen sees during his White House years. Much of the history is told through the interplay between Gaines and his son.

I have always admired Oprah Winfrey's acting skills, even though I did not enjoy her TV series much. I wish she had acted in several additional films, because she is excellent as the butler's wife who sees the same history as her husband and enthusiastically wants descrimination and segregation to end.

Some East and West Coast critics already name this film as an Oscar contender.

Mr. Allen in later service years.
Mr. Allen in later service years. | Source

Staff Areas Added During the Truman Administration

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Source
Source
The White House
The White House | Source

© 2013 Patty Inglish

More by this Author


Comments 11 comments

easylearningweb profile image

easylearningweb 3 years ago

Good hub... I'm really interested now in seeing this movie.

Thanks for all the info!


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America Author

It is packed full of events, for sure, and gives us a lot to think about.


Angela Blair profile image

Angela Blair 3 years ago from Central Texas

What an absolutely fascinating Hub -- and thank you for sharing all this info. I've seen the ads for the film on TV but just couldn't decide if I wanted to see it or not -- you've made up my mind for me -- I'll go! It's always a pleasure to read your excellent writing and your skill at researching any subject always come through clearly. Best/Sis


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America Author

I enjoyed watching the film and learned quite a few surprising things about our Presidents as well as about the butlers' lives in the White House. Cuba Gooding, Jr. was especially good as one of the supervising butlers. I hope you like the film. Thanks for your kinds words, too, Angela!


lupine profile image

lupine 3 years ago from Southern California (USA)

Good Review. This is a movie I will be sure to watch.


drbj profile image

drbj 3 years ago from south Florida

With your intriguing review, I promise not to miss seeing 'The Butler.' Thanks, Patty, for your relevant, movie-review titillation.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America Author

lupine - I like a children's stories about lupine flowers very much; thanks for commenting.

drbj - I'm going to see it again. I've read about a couple of other long time White House workers, so I hope additional books and films coem along soon.


lupine profile image

lupine 3 years ago from Southern California (USA)

Patty, I will be reading your hubs, interesting titles and subjects. Glad I met you on hubpages... thank you for the following!


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America Author

I am glad to be following you; also glad that you like these Hubs. "The Butler" may have several Oscar nominationns.


lupine profile image

lupine 3 years ago from Southern California (USA)

I saw the previews on TV last week, and knew I wanted to see this movie, so when I happened to see your hub on it, was very excited! Very informative hub.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America Author

Hope you like it as much as I do. Have a great time at the movies!

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working