The White House Butler: Eugene Allen, a Witness to History
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.
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.
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.
You hear nothing, you say nothing. You only serve.— Instructions given to White House butlers in the film "The Butler" (2013)
American History, 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.
- 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
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.
Staff Areas Added During the Truman AdministrationClick thumbnail to view full-size
- Haygood, W. The Butler. A Witness to History. Atria/37 INK; 2013
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Patty Inglish MS