Today’s #1 domestic box office movie, with earning $79.3 million and counting, was almost not made. Lee Daniels’ The Butler is based on the improbable true story of Eugene Allen, a 34-year employee of the White House, serving eight presidents and becoming an eyewitness to key events in our nation’s history; including the Vietnam War, the Civil Right Movement, Watergate, and apartheid.
The independent film is comprised of an all-star cast, including Forest Whitaker as the protagonist named Cecil Gaines (based on the life of Eugene Allen), Oprah Winfrey as Mrs. Gloria Gaines, John Cusack as President Richard Nixon, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan and so on.
Among the 41 investors who contributed to the independent film, Harry Martin, CEO of Intelligent Decisions, an IT solutions provider, was one of the first to become an executive producer.
To celebrate the success of the movie as well as reflect on the films themes and the broader progress made since Allen first entered the White House in 1952, Martin and Intelligent Decisions hosted “The Butler: Behind the Scenes of Power” panel discussion with the movie’s producer Pamela Oas Williams, journalist Wil Haygood, Eugene Allen’s son Charles Allen, former Director of the Executive Residence and White House Chief Usher Stephen Rochon, freedom-rider Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, guest curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture Dr. Spencer Crew and Retired United States Army four star general Johnnie Wilson. Wil Haygood was the first person to highlight Allen’s life in a 2008 Washington Post article, and his book The Butler: A Witness to History recently became a New York Times bestseller.
Martin gave attendees insight regarding the initial difficulties faced in funding the $30 million-budget film, and why he felt compelled to join the project.
“Before I committed to co-producing The Butler I met with various bankers, entertainment analysts and other people associated with the industry, everyone’s advice was to pass on the film…it seemed the studios all agreed. Even with all of this input, I personally was not ready to pass on this story; I could not let go of the feeling that this piece of history needed to be told,” Martin told the audience.
“My next meeting was with Lee Daniels at the Rooftop Lounge of the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills…a meeting that can only be described as a classic “Hollywood Moment”. Lee showed up in his pajamas. If you aren’t familiar with the Peninsula Hotel, it isn’t a place where pajamas are commonplace. I simply assumed that he must have been working feverishly through the night; and it took all I could muster not to make a comment, clearly a test of my willpower. I would later find out that was just the way Lee rolled. That evening, despite Lee’s fashion choices, I listened closely to his vision for the movie and quickly realized that he would be able to tackle the enormous challenge of telling a historically accurate story from a unique perspective,” Martin went on to say.
The interactive panel discussion was led by ABC7’s Kendis Gibson and covered a variety of topics, including the use of Lee Daniels’ The Butler as a teaching tool in local schools and universities, the role Hollywood plays in social movements, African American life as portrayed by the media, as well as how the production landed such a start-studded cast.
Photo credit to Maria Bryk.