Pictured: My “escorts” from left, Wil Haygood and Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman, at the exclusive Midwest screening of Lee Daniels’ The Butler
By Sherri Geldin
Here at the Wex, we delight in bringing preeminent national and international talents to Columbus (to wit—Isabella Rossellini and Guy Maddin this very weekend), as well as in celebrating creative virtuosos who call (or once called) Columbus their home. One such luminary we recently had the pleasure to honor is Wil Haygood, who grew up in Weinland Park in the University District and cut his journalistic teeth at the African-American Call & Post newspaper here in town. If the name sounds familiar, it should! Wil has been the toast of the media over the past few weeks, appearing on Anderson Cooper 360, MSNBC’s Hardball, and in scores of print pieces as the enterprising, Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist behind the 2008 front-page Washington Post article that revealed to the world the extraordinary saga of Eugene Allen—the humble butler who served eight presidents from Truman to Reagan. That story of course serves as the inspiration behind the newly released film Lee Daniels’ The Butler (starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey), on which Wil served as associate producer, in addition to authoring the book The Butler: A Witness to History.
On Wednesday, August 14, the Wexner Center was thrilled to join together with Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman and community leaders to welcome Wil Haygood back to his hometown as we presented the film’s area premiere—on what we understand to have been the same night President Barack Obama and his family had their own special screening of Lee Daniels’ The Butler! A sellout crowd of over 400 people attended our premiere, honoring Wil and celebrating his remarkable achievements (view a photo gallery here). It was a deeply moving experience to watch this powerful epic come to vivid life, knowing that we were in the company of the man without whom the film would simply not exist. And as we collectively watched those four crucible decades in the history of American civil rights unspool on screen, virtually every member of the audience found his or her own private recollections of that era powerfully summoned. The performances were captivating, but none more so than that of Forest Whitaker, whose every facial expression, mannerism, or stance subtly yet searingly conveyed the supreme honor he took in service along with the ultimate indignity of his near invisibility. It was simply extraordinary. For all of us in the theater with Wil that night, perhaps nothing was more touching than the realization that he and he alone had brought much deserved attention and respect to a remarkable man—and by extension to so many others like him—who likely would otherwise remain forever unseen.
It was no surprise to any of us that when the film was nationally released two days later, it would immediately rise to the top of every imaginable list. The New York Times’s A.O. Scott noted that “the genius of The Butler lies in the sly and self-assured way it connects public affairs to private experience.” The New Yorker’s David Denby described Forest Whitaker’ performance as the eponymous butler “like a sentinel keeping guard over the nation’s dignity.”
If you’d like to hear (and watch) an interview with Wil on WOSU’s All Sides with Ann Fisher, click here. And for those who would like another opportunity to meet the author in person, he’ll be back in Columbus on September 12 to give a book talk at Ohio Dominican (in conversation with his former Post editor, Steve Reiss, in a free public event). In that regard, let me share a somewhat related coincidence:
This year I had occasion to attend two university graduations—one at Miami University, where Wil Haygood delivered the commencement address, and the other at OSU where President Obama held forth. I don’t think I need to tell anyone what a soaring, inspirational speaker our President can be, but if I’m honest, there was no contest. . .the President was good, but Wil was magnificent!
Meanwhile, of course, the movie is showing at eight local theaters and thousands nationally but, I’m enormously proud to say, the Wex brought it to you first, and with “talent” in tow!
Geldin is director of the Wexner Center for the Arts.