A new movie opens today. It’s what Hollywood likes to call “historical fiction” but don’t let that fool you because it ain’t history:
A few days after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the Washington Post published an article about a black butler who served in the White House for 34 years, under eight presidents, from Truman to Reagan. Eugene Allen represented, as journalist Wil Haygood wrote, “a story from the back pages of history. A figure in the tiniest of print. The man in the kitchen.”
“He was there,” Haygood continued, “while America’s racial history was being remade: Brown v. Board of Education, the Little Rock school crisis, the 1963 March on Washington, the cities burning, the civil rights bills, the assassinations.” Allen undoubtedly lived a fascinating life, meeting countless historical figures during especially polarizing times, and it’s unsurprising that Haygood’s profile caught the eye of Hollywood. It is now the basis for Lee Daniels’ The Butler (the director’s name is included thanks to silly copyright claims made by Warner Bros).
But as interesting as Haygood’s profile is, “A Butler Well Served by This Election” doesn’t provide that many details about Allen’s time in the White House outside a handful of facts and humorous anecdotes. (Allen’s wife Helene referred affectionately to former First Lady Rosalynn Carter as “country,” for instance.) The Butler is a bit more than 2 hours long, spans several decades, and includes multiple storylines. It’s fair to say it has epic ambitions.
So how much of Allen’s real-life experience actually made it into the film?
Not much. According to Daniels’ foreword in The Butler: A Witness to History, a book by Haygood published to accompany the film, the movie “is set against historical events,” but “the title character and his family are fictionalized.” The skeleton of Allen’s story is there: the childhood on a plantation in the early 1920s, the interactions with several presidents. But the names have been changed: Allen and his wife, Helene, are called Cecil and Gloria Gaines. (They’re played by Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.) At least one key character, Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo), is entirely made up.
If you want to read more about the fictional story go here. If you want to read more about the real historical figure then go here instead. The guy who wrote the screenplay is the same guy who wrote Game Change and they cast Hanoi Jane Fonda as Nancy “Mommy” Reagan so that should give you an idea how historically accurate the movie is.
On the other hand historical accuracy is not a requirement for a good movie. Forrest Gump is a great movie about a fictional character set in an historical context.
I have not seen The Butler. I probably won’t see it until it comes out on cable. I do not know if it is even worth seeing. But I am willing to bet that regardless of how it performs in the box office it will be a contender for a number of awards because it advances one of Hollywood’s favorite narratives.
My concern is that the movie pretends to be true the same way that Game Change pretended to be an accurate depiction of the McCain/Palin campaign. The words “truthiness” and “verisimilitude” come to mind.
So does “propaganda”.