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This essay was written by Ron Wynn.
Everyone, regardless of whether they are a supporter or detractor of Lee Daniels’ film The Butler should read acclaimed Washington Post writer Wil Haygood’s short, yet comprehensive and valuable companion book. The Butler, A Witness to History (Atria/Simon & Schuster) expands the remarkable 2009 feature story Haygood did on Eugene Allen, the man who served as a butler to eight presidents over a 34-year period.
It is painfully clear from some of the uninformed, at times unreasonable and often borderline offensive commentary aimed at the project that’s made its way into the cyberspace world, that plenty of folks who’ve neither seen the film nor read the book nonetheless feel obligated to weigh in on the subject.
First, while director Daniels’ has written a foreword to the book, the cinematic version of Allen’s tale bears minimal resemblance to the far more compelling personal story. Only four presidents’ administrations are covered in the movie. The general portrayal of a man whose time under different White House leaders mirrors the nation’s difficult struggles to achieve social justice and equality is accurate, but cannot be adequately shown in a commercial vehicle.
Second, the struggles within the Allen family (one son in Vietnam, the other involved in the Black power movement) are much more complex than the soap opera and rhetorical splices that are incorporated within the film. Haygood, who spent many weeks with family members, provides a far more nuanced story about the father/son disputes, while documenting an amazing love story between Allen and his longtime wife Helene.