‘Butler’ author coming to Case Western Reserve University, discusses Oscar snub

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in a scene from "Lee Daniels' The Butler." (Anne Marie Fox/The Weinstein Company)

The morning after the Oscar nominations were announced, Washington Post writer Wil Haygood was choosing his words carefully.

Haygood, who will speak at Case Western Reserve University on Friday, had written about White House butler Eugene Allen, who worked for presidents from Truman through Reagan. That article inspired the movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler, with Forest Whitaker as a White House butler named Cecil Gaines. Many Oscars experts anticipated some honors for the film.

But when the nominations were announced, The Butler had none. Neither did Fruitvale Station, an acclaimed independent film about African-Americans. Nor 42, the drama about Jackie Robinson. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, with an impressive lead performance by Idris Elba, received only a nomination for original song — a composition by the socially conscious but white band U2.

The academy did heap praise on 12 Years a Slave, with nine nominations including best picture, but an expected wave of honors for other films with and about black people did not materialize. It was as if Hollywood had a one-black-project quota in its awards, and 12 Years a Slave was it.

And what did Haygood think about this? In a recent telephone interview, he at first tried — in between many uhs and pauses — to focus on the movie’s success.

Reviews were mostly positive, with Oprah Winfrey in particular drawing raves for her performance as Gaines’s wife and Whitaker just one of many previous Oscar winners in the cast. It took in more than $116 million at the U.S. box office, according to Haygood especially good for a serious drama. It had received nominations from other awards-givers, and Haygood’s companion book to the movie became a best-seller.

The Akron-Summit County Public Library has hundreds of holds backed up on the DVD of the movie, as well as holds on the Blu-ray and Haygood’s book. The Butler is also part of several events in Case Western’s weeklong marking of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, capped by Haygood giving the MLK Convocation lecture at 12:30 p.m. Friday in Amasa Stone Chapel (see www.case.edu/events/mlk/ for details).

“All I’m prepared to say about [the nominations] is that America — America — showed its love for the movie and turned out in droves, and turned the movie into both a critical and a commercial success,” Haygood said. “It’s also been a success on the worldwide stage. It’s played in about 30 foreign countries.

“I do unequivocally feel that Lee Daniels directed an amazing movie and that Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker and many other actors and actresses in the cast gave amazing performances. It is in a sense heartbreaking that these dazzling talents were not recognized, and of course I feel deeply emotional about their absence. But that does not detract from the brilliant work that they’ve collectively done to make this epic drama about America and about a White House butler and the civil rights movement.”

But that answer did not seem to cover the issue. Haygood, after all, has looked at America’s racial history many times, beginning with his upbringing in Columbus, through years as a journalist and as the author of biographies of Adam Clayton Powell, Sugar Ray Robinson and Sammy Davis Jr. — transcendent figures in politics, sports and entertainment respectively. And when asked, he elaborated on his concerns about the Oscars.

“It’s been written and it’s been acknowledged that the [motion picture] academy is not a diverse organization,” he said. The Los Angeles Times in 2012 estimated that the academy’s voters were 94 percent white and 77 percent male. About 86 percent were age 50 or older. One former academy president said to the Times that “I don’t see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population. That’s what the People’s Choice Awards are for.”

But to Haygood, the academy demographics say it “is not, probably, a culturally enlightened organization.

“If film is one of the biggest exporters of the American experience, then I think that the academy does a disservice when they disengage from honoring movies that are as rich as the crop of the movies that we had this year,” he said.

Nor are such omissions new.

“Given the history of race in America, given the history of race in cinema in America, there are legendary stories that caused black Americans a lot of pain in the past. We thought Malcolm X would win for Denzel Washington’s great performance.” (Al Pacino won that year, for Scent of a Woman.)

“There’s no getting around it — there are great performances going back to (1964’s) Nothin’ But a Man, with Ivan Dixon … some great films with Harry Belafonte that got overlooked. Richard Pryor gave a dynamic performance in Lady Sings the Blues,” said Haygood, referring to several people who were never even nominated. “These things do hurt the African-American community. And to overlook Lee Daniels and Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey for The Butler, I think, is truly astonishing.”

Yet Haygood has known that he was onto something remarkable from the time more than five years ago when he walked into Eugene Allen’s basement — “this roomful of astonishing material. Gifts to him from the presidents. Handwritten letters to him from the first ladies. Pictures of him with every president he had ever worked for, which was a total of eight. … I knew that this was a special moment of writerly discovery.”

But a moment that almost did not lead to an article, let alone a movie. Allen’s wife died the day before the 2008 election.

“That, in a sense, threw a wrench into the story. I wondered at that point if I even had a story, because one of my main characters had died. But my editor convinced me to push on. He said, ‘You have a special story here. They decided to tell you their life story, when they hadn’t talked to anyone else.’ ”

He finished the story. The Post printed it. “And by that evening, I had 12 or 13 movie production companies that had gotten in touch with me.”

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com. including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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