‘The Butler’ movie: Forest, Oprah and me
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 email@example.com.