‘The Butler’ brings a front row seat to the civil rights movement


Eugene Allen worked as a butler in the White House for more than three decades, where he had a front row seat to our nation’s civil rights history. Filmmaker Lee Daniels was so inspired by that experience that he decided to bring it to life once again in The Butler, his new film that’s already generating Oscar buzz.

The movie presents a fictionalized take on Allen’s experiences at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where he worked for many leaders who played big roles in the civil rights movement in various ways, but it also tells the story of the civil rights milestones that took place beyond the walls of the White House.

Daniels said that the making the movie changed his own perspective on the civil rights movement. On Thursday’s PoliticsNation he described shooting one scene in which the main character’s son has joined the Freedom Riders and is riding on a bus in the south when suddenly members of the Ku Klux Klan attack the bus.

“On that bridge [where we were shooting the scene], there were actually lynchings that took place,” he said. “And I was on the bus with the kids, and I yelled ‘action’ and then from nowhere came the KKK and the swastikas and the crosses, and I yell ‘cut’ but they can’t hear me because I’m on the bus. So I’m screaming ‘cut, cut’ and they’re still coming at us shaking the bus.”

“And I realized at that moment that these kids were heroes,” he added. “That these kids were heroes and there was no director to yell ‘cut.’”

Rev. Sharpton revealed on the show that he was also deeply impacted by the film, which he saw at a pre-release screening on the night the Trayvon Martin verdict was announced.

“I walked out of the screening, got in the car, and they called me to come to the studio, and I heard the Trayvon Martin verdict that night,” he said. “And between ‘The Butler’ and that verdict, it was a very weird experience for me, but I think a lot of the way we were able to react was because of ‘The Butler’ and seeing the struggle that we did not want to disgrace, was in our minds, so we didn’t react as emotionally and as out of bounds as people might have thought.”

“I think that it will put in context for a lot of people – no matter what they’re opinion of the verdict – it will put in context what a lot of us bring to looking at this whole situation,” he added.

'The Butler' brings a front row seat to the civil rights movement