Publishers Weekly - Audio
A companion to Lee Daniel’s recent film, The Butler, Haygood provides a history of Eugene Allen in his role as butler to eight U.S. presidents. Coupled with this is Haygood’s account of how the original Washington Post article about Allen turned into a movie with an all-star cast. This audio edition features a skilled group of narrators—all with significant roles in the film. Forest Whitaker carries the weight of the production, providing voices for Haygood—the reporter who originally pursued the story—and Allen. Whitaker’s pacing easily keeps listener attention, and his tone, emphasis, and timing flesh out the characters. Winfrey and Oyelowo, both of who provide strong and clear narration, read additional essays. An Atria/37 Ink hardcover. (Aug.)
In 2008, journalist Haygood pitched a feature to The Washington Post following his hunch that Barack Obama would be elected president. Seeking an African-American who had worked in the White House during the Civil Rights era, Haygood found Eugene Al-len, a butler during eight presidential administrations. In this expansion of his original essay, Haygood chronicles Allen's eventful life: from his humble beginnings on a Virginia plantation, through his time comforting John F. Kennedy, and into old age, when he cast his vote for the first black president. In the essay "Moving Image," Haygood traces the history of blacks in cinema beginning with D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation to the career of Sidney Poitier and the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. He also reports from the set of The Butler—the film inspired by his article—interviewing a range of cast and crew members. Haygood notes major events that occurred during Allen's career, including Brown v Board of Education and the 1986 passing of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. Upon Allen's death, the London Independent recalled him as "a discreet stage hand who for three decades helped keep the show running in the most important political theatre of all." Haygood has done well to preserve Allen's memory. Photos. (Sept.)
The Christian Science Monitor
"Wil Haygood blends the political with the personal in this portrait of White House butler Eugene Allen. Allen, an African-American, served eight US presidents (from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan) for 34 years – a span of time that included remarkable gains in civil rights."
"The Butler: A Witness to History should get just as much, if not more, attention than the film which uses its story for thematic foundation. Wil Haygood adds Eugene Allen’s chronicle to his impressive list of essential works on great figures in black and American history."
SEPTEMBER 2013 - AudioFile
This book offers backstory and a “making-of” look at the movie THE BUTLER. But for all its star power, the tag-team approach to the narration doesn’t work. David Oyelowo delivers the opening section, about the life of Eugene Allen, the butler on whom this story is based. Oyelowo’s voice has the quiet grace and conviction of the man himself, as well as a slight accent and a soft tone. He uses his normal voice for journalist Wil Haygood. Oprah Winfrey reads a history of blacks and the cinema, but she hands off the reading when the material switches to the first person. Forest Whitaker picks up those parts. At that point, it seems odd to switch narrators. The story itself is compelling enough that the producers should have let Oyelowo read the entire work. R.C.G. © AudioFile 2013, Portland, Maine
A distinguished Washington Post journalist's account of the black White House butler who bore witness to eight presidential administrations. When Haygood (Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson, 2009, etc.) was covering the campaign of Barack Obama in 2008, he knew beyond any doubt that the former Illinois senator "was indeed going to get to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, to the White House." It was then that the author decided to see whether he could locate a black person "from the era of segregation" who had been a presidential servant. His investigations led him to an unassuming man named Eugene Allen. Born on a Virginia plantation, Allen grew up working as a houseboy for a white family. Possessed of refinement, discretion and a desire to make good in the world, he took a job as a waiter in a country club and then as pantry worker in the Truman White House, eventually rising to the rank of butler. From his unique vantage point "in the hard shadow of power," Allen witnessed history unfurl before him. He watched as President Dwight D. Eisenhower called on federal troops to protect black high school students in Arkansas, and he witnessed a nation mourn the death of JFK and become embittered over Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War and Nixon's role in the Watergate scandal. Allen's story, which began as a front-page article in the Post, would become the subject of a much-anticipated film, The Butler, which Haygood also discusses in context of the fraught and elided history of African-Americans in Hollywood. The book is brief, but the two sections and many images of Allen's quietly extraordinary life speak volumes about a nation struggling, and succeeding by degrees, to come to terms with an ignominious history of racial inequality. Poignant and powerful.