NEW ORLEANS — It’s after midnight on a side street here in this Southern city. There’s moonlight and klieg lights touching the front porch where Oprah Winfrey and Terrence Howard are sitting. They’re chatting a late night away, dressed coolly inside of a movie scene. Terrence sports a short-sleeve knit shirt like hipster Negro men used to wear in urban neighborhoods in the 1960s. They’re filming “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” a major motion picture adapted from a story I wrote for The Washington Post in 2008. I’m standing across the street — blocked off by police cars — watching with crew members and actors as the scene unfolds.
“Okay, that was lovely,” yells the director, Lee Daniels. “But let’s do it one more time. One more time.”
As the long night shoot finally ends, Oprah walks down off the porch. She comes right for me.
“Well, how was it?” she asks.
“It was beautiful,” I honestly answer.
“Oh, thank you, honey,” she says, sounding as sincere and grateful as can be.
The moment, like the moonlight, washes over me: Oprah Winfrey calling me “honey.”
I am on set with what may be a record number of Oscar winners in one movie. There are six: Oprah (honorary Oscar), Forest Whitaker, Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Fonda, Robin Williams and Cuba Gooding Jr.And the director has been nominated. Oprah is acting in her first full-length role since “Beloved” in 1998. The movie opens nationwide Aug. 16.
I felt bound for the acting life myself once. I left my home town of Columbus, Ohio, for New York City in 1979 with an armful of acting school brochures. I had gotten nice reviews for appearing in community theater productions. The bus that took me away smelled like urine, but I was Broadway-bound. And, like many thousands, and thousands more, I flopped.
But now here I am, and the cameras are rolling. Over there is Lenny Kravitz, and there’s Alan Rickman, David Oyelowo and Clarence Williams III, all in this movie. One day, I spot Fonda walking out of a tent. I’ve not yet been introduced to her. I must tell her about the time, when I was a young wannabe actor, that I walked her dad, Henry Fonda, to his limo after I had seen a Broadway performance of “First Monday in October.” I bum-rushed the man as he exited the stage door. She’ll just love hearing this little story. She gets closer to me, then closer. Then she shoots me one of those not-now looks. Oh, well.
I’ll save the story for Lee Daniels. He’ll love hearing it. And when I tell him, and tell him about my own acting background, he’ll probably want me to be an extra!
Producers Laura Ziskin and Pam Williams are sitting across from me at the Willard hotel in Washington. It’s early 2010, a little more than a year after my story about Eugene Allen appeared in The Post.
He was born on a Virginia plantation in 1919, arrived in Washington during the Great Depression and got himself a job at the White House in 1952, where he stayed for 34 years as a butler, serving eight presidents, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. After the story, Allen would receive letters from around the world. We’d read them together by lamplight in his Washington home.
Allen, 90, died on March 31, 2010. “During his many years at the White House,” President Obama will say upon his death, “he witnessed great milestones in our nation’s history, and his life represents an important part of the American story.”
“We’re talking to A-list directors,” Ziskin says.
I ask who is at the top of the list.
There is a long pause. Ziskin says to Williams: “Should I tell him?” Williams says yes.
“Spielberg wants to do it,” Ziskin says. “He doesn’t know if his schedule will work out. But he has already told us how he would portray all the presidents.”
When Steven Spielberg talks in Hollywood, everyone listens. Before the end of our gathering, Ziskin asks me to get her more photos of Eugene Allen “for Steven to see.”
But in the coming months, Spielberg decides his schedule simply won’t work. He offers regrets and goes on to film “Lincoln.” Lee Daniels, Oscar-nominated for directing “Precious” — and only the second black ever Oscar-nominated for directing — gets the job. “He has an amazing vision for the film,” Ziskin later tells me.
The hellishness of raising money filters through to me. One week it seems as if the movie is a go, the next it seems to be struggling to stay afloat because of a certain investor’s pullout, only to be fully resuscitated the following week.
Then Ziskin gets very sick. Breast cancer. She seeks commitments from everyone that no matter what, they will not abandon the movie. She has long been upset about the lack of diversity in Hollywood movies, how rare it is for movies about the dynamics of politics and race in this country to get made.
Everyone makes promises to her. But it is Hollywood, where more promises come with the weight of feathers than boulders.
Months and months pass. Laura Ziskin dies on June 12, 2011.
Everyone keeps their word, and filming begins in the summer of 2012. The power of the boulders won.
As I step off the elevator of the production offices, I spot a yellow sign — “THE BUTLER PRODUCTION OFFICE” — and make a mental note that I’ve got to beg someone for that sign!
Lee Daniels sits on the sofa. His office is full of civil rights research — books, photographs, old newsreels — emblems of the arc of time Eugene Allen and his eight presidents lived through.
“I’m terrified,” Lee tells me about the start of filming, one day away. “I’ve got to get this story right. The material is so rich, so sacred.”
Hmm: Terrified? Maybe this is not the right time to tell Lee about my community theater experience.
In the outer production room, computers glow as technical crew and location scouts pore over maps and diagrams. Walking around, I notice a tall figure on the phone: Forest Whitaker. He’s playing Cecil Gaines, the role inspired by Eugene Allen. That night, Forest’s assistant reaches me at my hotel. Forest wants me to come out to where he’s staying to talk about Allen.
Forest tells me how intimidating the part is. This comes from the actor who portrayed brutal dictator Idi Amin.
Next morning I hop a streetcar. Forest’s assistant ushers me inside. It’s one of those big New Orleans houses, full of sunlight. The owners are away, having rented it out — a home away from home for Forest.
I had interviewed the actor years ago when he was on a press tour for “The Last King of Scotland,” the movie that garnered him the best acting Oscar. I ask him if he remembers me.
He tells me how excited he is about the White House butler role, but how intimidating the part is. “It’s really the most challenging role I’ve ever been asked to play,” he says.
This comes from the actor who portrayed brutal dictator Idi Amin.
Forest says the challenge is playing a man who had to keep his emotions in check inside the White House as the civil rights movement churned all around him. A man who had to adapt to eight different presidents, eight different personalities. (Only five presidents are portrayed in the movie, which is a blend of fact and fiction. “We can’t make a four-hour movie,” as producer Williams put it.)
The dining room table, just feet from where we are sitting, is set lavishly — gleaming silverware and china, beautiful candles, cloth napkins — as if company is expected. Moi?
“I’ve hired a butler to teach me how to be a butler, how to properly set the table and serve,” Forest explains.
He talks about the butler things he has learned so far: How to glide around a state dining room table as the dishes are being served. When to replace silverware. How to reach for the wine glasses.
He pulls thick notebooks from a shoulder bag. They’re full of research materials and photographs from the civil rights movement. He also has a good many pictures of Eugene Allen and copies of the stories I wrote.
“I wasn’t happy with the roles I had been getting,” Forest says. “My career wasn’t going in the right direction. This part has reenergized my love of acting.” He has thus touched upon the challenge for the black actor in Hollywood, the same conundrum Laura Ziskin had long talked about.
One hour has turned to two. We get to talking about black men, about the old black men who had been in our respective lives. About the good black men who must have worked as hard and as steady as Eugene Allen, though not at such an illustrious address. Forest mentions his father and grandfather. “Allen reminds me a little of them,” he says, and talks about their sense of a work ethic, of honor.
Actually, we’re both referring to the sheer fortitude of black men like Eugene Allen through brutal, unjust times.
Pam Williams and co-producer David Jacobson swing by to pick me up for the first day of filming. We pull onto the campus of Tulane University. Vintage cars are everywhere, so are extras dressed in 1950s clothing. These scenes are about Louis, the butler’s fictional son, and his first day of college. Lee is under a tent, sitting in a chair in front of monitors. The cameras roll, and they stop. He bounces from his chair to direct the actors, as another take is ordered. Between takes, he spots me.
“Wil, how are you?”
I tell him I’m fine. His pajamas are flapping in the light breeze. Pajamas are his on-set dress. He says the loose-fitting clothing puts him at ease. Orson Welles, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock — they all had their quirks, too.
“Lee! Hey, Lee!” Someone is always calling after the director.
Jesse Williams, the blue-eyed actor from “Grey’s Anatomy,” walks by. He doesn’t say a word. Maybe he thinks I’m an extra. Williams is playing the Rev. James Lawson, one of the giants of the American civil rights movement, a leading nonviolence theoretician. This is a movie about a butler, yes, but it’s also about one of the most dangerous and wrenching movements in American history.
A few hours later, I find myself standing with Kevin Ladson, the prop master. All the old magazines, books, decorations, signs (“WHITE,” “COLORED,” “WHITE ONLY”) that might have been in either a house or business establishment, say, in 1955, or 1960, or 1964, Ladson and his crew are responsible for finding. To look at the objects is to be reminded how recent our painful history has been.
“How did you find the butler?” Ladson asks.
This is how it began: In 2008 I was in Chapel Hill, N.C., covering a rally for presidential candidate Barack Obama. After the rally, I slid outside with everyone else. It was after midnight. I heard crying and saw several young white girls sitting on a bench. They were moved by Obama’s speech. They all mentioned tension in their families because they supported this black man. That seemed to be at the nexus of white America right here and now: family members who would judge a man by his character, not his skin color, and those who would not.
No, it wasn’t remotely as powerful as all those black women standing beside Mamie Till when she buried her son, Emmett, murdered in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman in 1955. But it was powerful. Family-against-family torment. They somehow convinced me that Obama would win. And I decided to find a man or woman who had lived — and worked inside the White House — at a time when the very idea of a black man in the Oval Office seemed impossible.
After weeks of searching, I found Eugene and Helene Allen living by themselves at the end of a quiet street in Washington. I interviewed them. Days later — and just a day before the historic election of 2008 — Helene died in her sleep. The butler, I told Ladson, went to the polls alone.
I watch Ladson wipe away tears. He tells me that he, as many of the actors did, took a pay cut to work on this movie.
We’re inside a lavish residence on the edge of New Orleans. A room has been made to resemble an office inside the White House, where Cecil Gaines is being interviewed by Freddie Fallows, the White House maitre d’. Fallows is played by Broadway actor Colman Domingo, dressed in tails and white gloves. The scene is to echo Eugene Allen’s 1952 interview for a job as pantry man.
Fallows: Are you political, Mr. Gaines?
Gaines: No, sir.
Fallows: Good. We have no tolerance for politics at the White House.
Later, there’s another scene — quite rich — where Fallows describes the role of the White House butler.
Fallows: You hear nothing. You see nothing. You only serve.
While Allen served in the White House, he saw the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling come down. Little Rock happened, where Negro students were stoned for trying to integrate the high school. Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus. Medgar Evers was assassinated for trying to register blacks to vote. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. The Kennedy brothers were assassinated; King was assassinated. Washington was on fire; so were Newark, Harlem, Chicago and Watts.
The butler poured tea and set buffets and saw the world change, got his own full citizenship with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.And, in the end, as his White House years were coming to a close, Allen, courtesy of President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan, became a guest at a state dinner. Wife Helene was at his side that night. She told her son, Charles, it was like a dream.
Charles flies in from Washington and watches the filming of that scene, the state dinner for German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, in 1986. We’re in a hallway, yakking with Pam Williams as extras glide by — men in tuxes and women in gowns.
“Are you going to yell ‘Action,’ Lee?” Jane Fonda impatiently calls out from across the room. Her Nancy Reagan is sitting next to Oprah’s butler’s wife.
“I don’t do that,” Lee says. “I only yell ‘Action’ in the bedroom.”
Everyone cracks up.
Charles Allen watches several takes. He is watching Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey play characters inspired by his father and mother. “It’s really uncanny how they get my parents,” he says.
Charles and I stare at one another: If only Eugene and Helene could see this.
It’s another afternoon, and here comes Alan Rickman, walking toward me as I wolf down peanuts at the snack truck. He plays Reagan, and he’s dressed as Reagan used to dress, tailored clothing. Reagan possessed a 1940s Hollywood sartorial touch.
Rickman doesn’t know me from Adam. I introduce myself and tell him I wrote the original story. He squints. “Was it a documentary or something?” he says.
Maybe he didn’t hear me, so I repeat myself.
“Oh,” he says, turning, striding off without another word.
But never mind.
It’s another day, and Oprah is looking for me! I have no idea why Oprah is looking for me. Evan, who is driving me, picks up the call from her assistant on his phone. When we reach the house where they are filming, I’m ushered inside. Forest and Oprah are in the front room, sitting in chairs. They are now elderly, just as Eugene and Helene Allen were when I first met them.
Oprah reaches her hand out and grabs mine. She begins talking to me in an old lady’s voice, whispery and light. “We’re gonna be trying to get Obama into the White House,” she says. “I believe we can do it.” I quickly realize she’s in character, and I nod and toss out some lines to keep her in character. This goes on for minutes. Forest is in character, too, nearby, and he just nods at the both of us. I’m acting again!
When I tell Daniels about my own acting background, he’ll probably want me to be an extra!
I block everything else out, and it’s just me and Oprah, holding hands. I think she thinks I think I know what I’m doing. She says: “See all the people outside walking by? I believe they gonna vote for Obama, too.” She won’t let my hand go.
Oprah knows me from Adam. I wonder if Lee is someplace watching this on the monitor.
Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.
Tomorrow I must tell Lee about my acting experience. I want to slap myself for not bringing any of my theater reviews with me!
My credits in Columbus had added up. There was “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men,” by Lonne Elder III, in which I played the owner of a barbershop. There was “To Kill a Mockingbird,” adapted from Harper Lee’s novel about a black man wrongly accused of a crime in the South. I’m listed in the playbill as one of the anonymous “townspeople.” In the play I sat quietly in the “segregated” balcony, now and then shifting my butt, slightly moving my arms. I’m convinced I played the heck out of that role, though I went unmentioned in every review. Then there was “God’s Favorite,” a Neil Simon comedy, and the role I played that Lee Daniels will surely want to hear about.
I remember riding the city bus to the “God’s Favorite” audition. I was 22, too young to play the role I was auditioning for — the butler — so I put baby powder in my hair to resemble a much older man. The play opened Oct. 29, 1977. I remember a full audience. I also remember getting the biggest laugh lines, a memory that, for some reason, makes me feel a little queasy now. The audiences were overwhelmingly white.
Actually, I don’t remember any of my black friends — or family — coming to see me. Were they ashamed I was playing a butler?
Being a black butler in white society has always taken on a far different texture than being a white butler in white society. It was one of the few instances in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s where a black man would be seen inside a white household in this country. Jobs as butlers were quite prominent in well-off Southern families, especially on working farms and plantations.
When the 1960s came along, black youth frowned at the avocations of butler and maid, seeing those jobs as painfully subservient. It is one of the dynamics Lee captures.
There have been precious few civil rights dramas on the big screen in America. That very challenge seemed to seize Lee. He was going to direct an earlier movie, “Selma,” all about that drama-soaked civil rights city. But the funding never materialized. So he was eager to direct “The Butler.”
This movie was a turning back of the clock: dogs and Klansmen and attacks on Negro students trying to integrate dining places. It was history that swept from the eyes of presidents to the eyes of a White House butler. Some scenes made me think of my mother and her parents, and all the things they saw, they endured. They were born in Selma. Theirs were some of the sepia faces pressed against the train window during the Great Migration. They were fleeing north inside the borders of their own country.
I’m away, taking a break from filming when David Oyelowo sends me a picture of his little son, who got an on-the-spot role as an extra in a plantation scene. He’s so proud. Then he says: “We have to figure out a way to get you in this movie.”
This is my sign! I’ve got to get the nerve to talk to Lee! When I get back on the set, I spot him. He’s talking with some movie executives. As I get closer, I hear wisps of the conversation: It’s about money, about needing more money to film more scenes. He sounds agitated. I turn away on a dime.
A short while later, Lee is yelling my name: “Where’s Wil? Anyone seen Wil?”
Suddenly, I find myself in a room with Lee; Danny Strong, who wrote the screenplay; and Liev Schreiber, who’s playing Lyndon Johnson. Schreiber is about to film a pivotal scene: LBJ’s big 1964 civil rights speech delivered before Congress. Schreiber is made up to look just like LBJ: the swept-back hair, those round glasses. He’s naturally big like Johnson. Lee and Strong want my input on a bit of dialogue. We all toss out lines, and more lines, until Lee is comfortable, and he goes off with Schreiber to shoot the scene. I watch on a monitor in a nearby room, glad to have had the tiniest role in helping Schreiber.
It is easy to look at this scene — President Johnson giving the speech that legally forced those “WHITE” and “COLORED” signs to come down, that began the process of integrating this nation — and know this: America is not that long removed from her racial nightmare. Forest, Oprah, myself, so many others here, were kids in the thrall of that freedom-making speech. How can we not feel the sweet river of time and life? Of fortune itself?
Nearly 40 days of filming are coming to an end. We’ve filmed a movie about the White House, and about a butler, and about race in America. About the road to Barack Obama. It is difficult for the elderly white people who are playing extras to openly talk about the era of segregation. They politely beg off that line of questioning.
We’ve filmed in old black churches used in the Underground Railroad. We’ve filmed on plantations where misery lurked. We’ve filmed in an old Woolworth’s that was the scene of sit-ins.
Some scenes made me think of my mother and her parents, and all the
things they saw, they endured.
I’m standing in a hallway outside a large room where filming is about to wrap. I tell a few folks I’ll be leaving in the morning.
It’s Lee. I glance into the room, and he’s standing in the center. A couple of hundred people are circled around him.
“Here he is,” someone says, as if I’d been hiding in the hallway. Lee cranes his neck. “Wil, please come in.”
He starts talking. “As you know, Wil found Eugene Allen, and his story is the seed which planted this movie.” He goes on and on, and I blush. I’m asked to say a few words. I start by looking around, at all the actors, craftsmen and producers who have worked tirelessly on this movie. They are the ones who have made it happen, turning down other offers, taking those pay cuts because they believed.
In our best moments, we all felt we were here because of an old black man and woman, an American couple, a butler and his wife, who jumped from one century to the next, who went from segregation to integration beneath the glow of chandelier light at the White House. Everyone is staring at me. I turn and glance at our director, I swallow hard, and try to gather my thoughts.
Wil Haygood, a Washington Post staff writer, will be reading from his new book, “The Butler: A Witness to History,” at 7 p.m. July 30 at Politics and Prose bookstore. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.