By Brooke Schultz
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Washington College students, faculty, and staff, alongside community members, watched the national debut of Melissa Sue Lopez’s film, “The Butler’s Home: A Glimpse into Eugene Allen’s Life.”
The film followed a group of students as they travelled to the home of the late Eugene Allen, the man who worked as a butler in the White House under eight presidents, in November 2017. The trip was organized by the Starr Center for the American Experience and the Black Student Union.
The screening was part of a weeklong series of events commemorating King and was presented by the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, Department of Music, and Black Student Union, in partnership with Sumner Hall, Chester Valley Ministers’ Association, Bethel AME Church, Kent County Arts Council, and RiverArts.
“This story kind of unearthed a hidden figure of history,” said Dr. Patrick Nugent, deputy director of the Starr Center. “That was what struck me [the] most on the trip. We were in a museum but it was in the basement of a rowhouse on Otis Place—so in the most unexpected place, there is a historic shrine.”
Charles Allen, the son of Eugene Allen, was in attendance for the screening.
“When I was first approached by [Wil Haygood] for this project, I knew it was going to be nice,” Allen said. “It seemed like everything we had been involved in for, what’s it been, the past six years? It’s been like lightning in a bottle.”
Lopez, junior, captured the trip on her small camera, which she said she has been carrying around with her since she was 21 and in film school.
“When I was a kid, I always wanted to invent a time machine,” she said. “I was like, ‘How in the world am I going to invent a time machine?’ Well, I went to film school and I found my time machine.”
Through her camera—which she never puts down, she said, and utilized throughout the entire event—she’s able to go to the past, live the present, and go to the future, she said.
She discussed how, although the College asked for a two minute feature on the trip, she also put together the longer documentary of the day spent in the Allens’ home because, “As a storyteller, you go, you get all your footage, and then you find your story as you put it together,” she said.
The 26-minute film offered an intimate look as the first college group to ever visit the Allens’ home as they toured the property and looked through the artifacts Eugene Allen had collected in his basement.
It was in that space where Haygood, the 2017-18 Patrick Henry Fellow, first interviewed Eugene Allen about his life for the Washington Post.
During that interview, Eugene Allen led Haygood down the stairs to his basement, which had gifts, letters, and his three tuxedos he wore during his tenure.
“I spun from wall to wall to wall,” Haygood said at a previous event last semester. “I said, ‘My God, Mr. Allen, you mean to tell me that nobody has ever written about all this? About your life?’ He looked at me very sad like and said, ‘Well if you think I’m worthy, you’ll be the first.’”
Haygood’s article was printed on the front page of the Washington Post and it was the article on which the 2013 film, “The Butler,” starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, was based.
Charles Allen joked that when Lopez approached him and “she had this little baseball cap on, and was like, ‘Oh, Mr. Charles, Mr. Charles, it’d be so wonderful, I want to be able to just take a picture with you. I didn’t know that she was going to make this, [like] Cecil B. Demille.” He drew a laugh from the audience. “I didn’t know she was going to shoot a little mini ‘Gone with the Wind.’”
As noted above, this was the national debut of the film, as Charles Allen was called by the Department of State to go to Bolivia and speak to young individuals about the Civil Rights movement. Charles Allen screened the film there.
“I was so happy, so proud. It was like 2013 all over again,” he said.
Several of the students featured in the film talked about what the trip meant to them.
“It defined what a hero really is,” said sophomore Isaiah Reese. “What a true figure really is. The relationship with you [Charles Allen] and your dad made me think about my relationship with my mother….My mom, she’s a janitor but her work is still very important, and that’s what the trip taught me.”
Junior Fatimata Kane said that it is motivating to see figures like Eugene Allen who typically aren’t recognized.
Sophomore Paris Mercier, president of BSU, said that this experience really opened her eyes as a leader on campus.
“It made me, like Isaiah said, re-evaluate who our heroes are. It made me reflect that you don’t have to be the Martin Luther King on the front line to change lives. Here at WC, we have such an opportunity to make a huge ripple at such a small school,” she said.
Haygood and Charles Allen also talked about their experience as “The Butler” was first being screened five years ago. One thing that always struck him, Haygood said, was the fact the film repeatedly drew a standing ovation.
Because of that, in Litrenta Hall last Friday, Haygood added, “The filmmaker today deserves a standing ovation.”