Book Reviews

Book Review – The Butler: A Witness to History by Wil Haygood

Having seen the movie, Lee Daniels’ The Butler several times, I was eager to read what I thought was the book behind the film. I wanted to hear more of the story of Eugene Allen, who was a butler at the White House under eight Presidents over 34 years. When I read the introduction, I realized this was written after the film was made. The film was based on a story Wil Haygood had written for the Washington Post following the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency in 2008.

The Butler: A Witness to History wasn’t going to be what I expected, but that was okay. After reading the introduction, I thought the book would go into more depth about the story presented on film and talk about what artistic license was taken with Eugene Allen’s story for the film versus what the truth was. However, that’s not what the book is about.

Wil Haygood writes about meeting Eugene Allen and his wife, Helene, in the lead-up to Barack Obama’s election. It’s quite the stark contrast of a man born in the South at a time when segregation and racism were at an all-time high to the election of the nation’s first African-American President. However, the book is mostly about Haygood’s relationship with Allen and the development of the film. There’s very little of Eugene Allen’s actual voice here.

This is a shame because I am sure he could have revealed plenty that would not have compromised national security. Did Allen still feel a responsibility to confidentiality that his job entailed and not want to reveal anything? Were there more details in the original Washington Post story? These are the paths the book could have taken, as well as detailing the parts of the movie that were artistic license to create a good Hollywood film. Unfortunately, it did not do that.

The Butler: A Witness to History is a mercifully short book. I read it in one evening. I was also left unsatisfied, with more questions than when I began. It’s obvious in some places where there is artistic license in the film; the Allens only had one son who served in Vietnam but was not killed. There are some nice moments where Haygood talks about his relationship with Eugene Allen and details how excited he was to go to the inauguration of Barack Obama, despite the bad weather and his failing health. He also talks about how proud their son was of the story being told and helping to get Mr. Allen to the inauguration.

While the story of how to get the film made and dealing with the intricacies (and prejudices) in Hollywood are interesting, it’s not what I was looking for. The Butler: A Witness to History is not a bad book by any means, it’s just not what most people who pick it up will be looking for.

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