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Eugene Allen: The Butler

Published: 2/28/2014
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Eugene Allen (Photo by Kevin Clark/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Lee Daniels' The Butler, starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, was one of 2013's most-successful movies, winning raves from critics and drawing big box-office returns. Based on the life story of White House butler Eugene Allen, the film travels through history guided by one man with a unique point of view.

Allen, who was 90 when he died in March 2010, served eight presidents during his 34 years working in the White House, beginning with Harry Truman. He left the White House in 1986, during the second administration of Ronald Reagan.

"I liked them all," Allen said of his presidential employers in a 2008 interview on www.Telegraph.co.uk. "I can’t put one in front of the other."

The movie was based on Washington Post writer Wil Haygood’s 2008 profile of Allen, "A Butler Well Served By This Election." (Haygood also wrote the book The Butler: A Witness to History, published in 2013.)

When Allen, who was African-American, started serving presidents in 1952, "he couldn't even use the public restrooms when he ventured back to his native Virginia," Haygood wrote. Much changed during his decades at the White House. "America's racial history was being remade: Brown v. Board of Education, the Little Rock school crisis, the 1963 March on Washington, the cities burning, the civil rights bills, the assassinations."

The article closed with presidential Election Day 2008, when Allen, whose wife died the previous day, cast his vote for Barack Obama.

In Allen's obituary two years later, Haygood described how Allen had attended Obama's inauguration by special invitation, escorted to his seat by a Marine guard. "Eyes watering, he watched the first black man take the oath of office of the presidency."

The piece is filled with personal stories and tidbits: Allen shared a birthday and a love of golf with Gerald Ford. He chose not to attend John F. Kennedy's funeral so he could help serve the mourners afterward instead. First lady Nancy Reagan personally invited Allen and his wife to a state dinner with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

The movie, released the year of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, takes creative liberties both major and minor with Allen's story. As screenwriter Danny Strong told Word & Film magazine, "We're not trying to set out a word-for-word retelling of historical events. We're trying to tell the story of the Civil Rights movement through a prototypical American family and how they experienced those turbulent times. … We were much more concerned about a universal truth than we were about people criticizing if Eugene Allen did X, Y, or Z."

Some changes are relatively minor. Allen and his wife of 65 years, Helene, are renamed Cecil and Gloria Gaines. In the movie, the butler works under seven administrations; in reality, Allen served eight. The story of how Allen got the White House job in the first place –– and the reasons he left –– is completely different.

Other alterations are pure Hollywood drama. Here are three examples:

1) The character of Gaines, a houseboy for a white family, has a dramatic and violent back story featuring a rape, a murder and stealing to survive.

The houseboy part is true, the rest is not. In his profile, Haygood notes that when Allen discussed his childhood, "There was nary a hint of bitterness in his voice."

2) In the film, the Gaineses have two sons. The older, Louis, is a civil rights activist. The younger, Charles, dies while fighting in Vietnam.

Louis is completely fictional. Charles is based on the Allens’ only child, also named Charles, who did go to war, but survived. He still lives in Washington, D.C. In Allen's obituary, Haygood wrote that the butler served countless cups of milk and whiskey to a tense LBJ while Vietnam War protesters shouted outside the White House. "He longed to say something to Johnson about his son, who was serving in Vietnam at the time but dared not –– save for acknowledging that his son was alive when Johnson asked about him."

3) In the movie, the butler's wife struggles with alcohol and has an affair with a neighbor. In real life, Helene Allen was not an alcoholic, nor did she have an extramarital affair, according to the Los Angeles Daily News.

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."

 

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