The plot of Lee Daniels’ The Butler almost sounds too good to be “based on a true story.” Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a White House butler who serves under eight presidents, from John F. Kennedy’s Camelot to the Iron Curtain-tumbling days of Ronald Reagan.
Whitaker leads an all-star cast, including Oscar winners Oprah Winfrey (honorary, nominated), Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr., Vanessa Redgrave, and Robin Williams. It’s likely that The Butler, in theaters this weekend, will be an Oscar contender as well.
The movie was inspired by Eugene Allen, a butler in the White House from 1952 to 1986 who started as a “pantry man” and eventually worked his way up to maître d’. Wil Haywood, biographer of Sugar Ray Robinson and Sammy Davis, Jr., helped discover Allen in a Washington Post article, “A Butler Well Served by This Election.”
Haywood points out that Allen’s life in the White House ran parallel to the civil rights movement. He was there for Brown v. Board of Education, the Little Rock Crisis at Central High School, the 1963 March on Washington, the civil rights bills, and the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and Robert F. Kennedy. And before he died in 2010, Allen saw the election of President Obama.
Watch Haywood, who’s also associate producer on Lee Daniels’ The Butler, talk about what it was like getting to know a witness to American history.