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Arts and Entertainment

A witness to history: The story behind 'The Butler'
What sparked Wil Haygood's quest for a black butler?
Published Tuesday, August 13, 2013
by Michaela L. Duckett

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While the movie "Lee Danlels' The Butler' is fictionalized, Wil Haygood tells the real story of Eugene Allen in book, "The Butler: A Witness to History."

Acclaimed reporter, Guggenheim fellow and prize-winning biographer Wil Haygood had a hunch Barack Obama would win the 2008 presidential election.

That inkling led him on a quest to find a black White House servant who came of age in the midst of segregation and was so embedded in that culture that the very thought of a black president was inconceivable.

He struck gold when he tracked down Eugene Allen, a butler who served eight presidential administrations over the course of more than three decades. Haygood profiled Allen in the Washington Post.

Haygood’s article the impetus for the major motion picture “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” Haygood penned a companion book for the film titled “The Butler: A Witness to History.”

The story of America’s most momentous events – from Kennedy’s widow returning to the White House after his assassination to Johnson and his cabinet debating Vietnam – are told through Allen’s perspective as he witnessed it all while serving tea and supervising buffets.

While “The Butler” is set against historical events, the title character and his family are fictionalized. “The Buter: A Witness to History” tells Allen’s true story.

The book also includes an essay in the view of James Baldwin’s jewel, “The Devil Finds Works,” that explores the history of blacks in Hollywood as well as over 45 pictures of Allen, his family, the Presidents he served and many behind-the-scenes shots of the film’s cast.

Haygood has been described as a cultural historian. Other titles under his belt include “His King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell Jr.,” “In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr.,” and “Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson.”


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