Oscar Contenders

How Much of 'The Butler' is Actually True and Does it Hurt or Help the Movie?

Does it matter who it happened to if it actually happened?

How much of The Butler is true?
Forest Whitaker in The Butler
Photo: The Weinstein Co.

NOTE: The following article contains spoilers for The Butler.

Before posting my final review of Lee Daniels' The Butler I searched and searched and searched for information to find out just how much was true and how much was fictionalized for the sake of the film. I came away with the understanding the largest fictionalization was the invention of a second child, Louis, played by David Oyelowo. This, on top of the fact the name of the actual butler at the center of the story, Eugene Allen, had been changed to Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). Turns out that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Louis is a major character in the film and some could easily argue the actual lead as he becomes one of the Freedom Riders, joins the Black Panther party and even spends some time with Martin Luther King, Jr. It's through Louis that screenwriter Danny Strong gives the outside world a face for the audience to connect with. I understand this and don't mind the decision. As much as Cecil presents one side of the African American struggle, Louis is another.

To simply show these events on television or to have the presidents Cecil is serving acknowledge the events as they are reported on television or by his staff would have been to keep them at arm's length. By putting Louis in the middle of it, Cecil becomes a father with a child putting his life on the line for the sake of the betterment of our country. The real Cecil may not have been in that exact predicament, but there were fathers out there that were.

Now, in a new article at Slate the one question I could not find the answer to before hitting publish on that review concerned Cecil's father, whom we see shot in the head on a cotton farm at the beginning of the film. Slate's Aisha Harris says this event and virtually every nasty bit of prologue "appear to be the inventions of Lee Daniels and Danny Strong."

I opened my review with the following sentence:

Imagine your time on Earth began as a black man, young enough to see your father shot in the head in a cotton field with no repercussions for the shooter and you ultimately lived long enough to see Barack Obama elected as the first black President of the United States.

Now, just like my argument for the creation of a second son, you could use the same argument here. Certainly African American fathers were shot dead in front of their sons back then and this is simply an example of bringing that reality front and center. But where does the fictionalization end?

On top of this, not only did they create a son, the one son Eugene Allen did have, Charles, actually did go off to fight in the Vietnam war. In the film he dies in said war and the news is brought to Cecil on his birthday of all moments. In real life he comes home safely.

Additionally, Gloria Gaines, Cecil's wife played by Oprah Winfrey, is presented as a character that struggled with alcohol and even had an affair with the next door neighbor (Terrence Howard). Again, apparently not true.

How much of The Butler is true?
David Oyelowo in The Butler
Photo: The Weinstein Co.

I'm slightly torn with all of this. On the one hand I see the reason for a lot of the changes and it doesn't change the fact The Butler deals in realities. The aspects of the film that are hard to watch are made more emotional as a result of our connection to the characters. Isn't this a filmmaker's duty?

Is the burning of a Freedom Riders bus any less deplorable now that you know Eugene Allen's son wasn't actually on it? Is the tension between the older and younger generation in black families any less true or emotionally conflicting now that you know it didn't actually happen between these two characters even though it did happen between other, real people?

I can understand people being frustrated when they learn a film blurs the line between fiction and reality by starting things off with the idea what we're watching is true. We never consider the power of the word "based" when we see the phrase "based on a true story", which it seems we should actually read as "there is some modicum of truth in this, but don't for a second think this actually happened exactly as it's presented here."

Is The Butler true? Depends on what you're asking about specifically. Did Cecil Gaines exist? Yes, as Eugene Allen. Did he have a wife and two kids, one of which became an activist and the other died in Vietnam? No, he had a wife and one child, who went to Vietnam and returned home safely, but many others didn't.

Was his father shot on a cotton farm after which he served the man that murdered his father only to leave once he turned 15? It would seem the answer is no, but he did serve a white family on a cotton farm and he did leave in search of something better, but that doesn't mean what happened to Cecil in the film isn't a harsh reality of the time depicted.

The Slate story goes into further detail regarding the truths and fictions of the film. Give it a read and let me know what you think? Does this bother you or can you understand why the changes were made? Does it lessen the film's impact?

I imagine most audiences will be greatly affected by what they see in this film and grow compassionate about Cecil, Gloria, Louis and Charles and their concern for these characters will give greater weight to what they see on screen. However, will that compassion and concern diminish once they realize these people weren't real in the sense they may have believed them to be? Does the fact everything seen in the film didn't happen to these specific people, though it did happen to others, make a difference?

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  • http://kaisaccofilm.tumblr.com/ Kai Sacco

    The film is actually being marketed with the phrase "Inspired by a True Story" (it even appears on a black title card during the opening), so the liberties Danny Strong took with the material didn't bother me at all. Now, if it were being marketed with the phrase "Based on a True Story," I would have had some reservations.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      What it it had been "based on true stories". Would the plurality of it make a difference?

      • http://kaisaccofilm.tumblr.com/ Kai Sacco

        That's a really good question. It may have made a difference if the fictitious components of the story, such as the character of Louis, were based on actual people. However, I don't think the plurality would ACTUALLY make a difference since the movie has fictitious characters and happenings (such as Charlie's passing) interacting with real, documented events (Freedom Riders, Martin Luther King, Jr, etc.) I believe "Inspired by" ultimately works best for the movie since the story Strong has written is such an amalgamation of various fictions and non-fictions.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Adu/ Adu

    I think if the invention of the character was solely to hit us over the head with heavy-handed/manipulative emotion then I would have a problem. But your assessment does not seem to suggest such to that degree and hence I have no problem with it.

  • Aidan Khan

    Im really wondering what this film will do at the Oscars. In 2011, The Help, which didn't get as good reviews from critics as this, landed a Best Picture nomination and three acting nominations, and one win. Any thoughts Brad?

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/EPayneDDS/ EPayneDDS

      The Help was also crazy popular and did pretty big business at the box office.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/GhostTim/ GhostTim

    My opinion is that the story itself is grand enough to stand on its own facts. You said in your review that it was "too big for a two hour movie to hold". If that is the case for a film then the invention of murders, deaths, and extra sons are entirely unnecessary.
    I find it interesting that so many movies based around the civil rights movement feel they have to add fictional plot devices. Was the life and accomplishments of Eugene Allen not enough to stand up on their own merit? Was the situation in "Remember the Titans" not good enough, so you had to add fictional murders, inaccurate integration dates and stories, as well as inaccurate portrayals of the opposing teams? We wouldn't add fake major life events to biopics about Lincoln or Kennedy, so why for these stories?
    Anyways, that's just my 2 cents, although I probably tossed in a few extra cents for good measure.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Roger/ Roger Judd

    I find this cheapens the movie. There's a difference between a purely fictional story with a lot of emotion, and selling a movie based on true events, yet filling it with fiction to add emotional moments. Pass on this.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Torryz/ Torryz

      I agree with you on this. It's one thing to change a few people or places, for example, the airport scene in Argo. But it's another to have a character, that existed in real life, die in war but didn't really die in the war.

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Mintkondition/ OC Alexander

        Much more than the airport scene was false in Argo. The roles played by the Canadian and other embassies, for example, was significantly different than was portrayed in the film. Much worse is a movie like U-571, which was about US Navy submariners capturing an Enigma code machine from the Germans during WW II. The Americans were never involved, and none of the events shown in the film actually happened the way it was shown in this movie "inspired by actual events."

        But what potentially troubles me about The Butler is that the fictional death of characters may conform to an odd need by some film goers who need to see historical racism goosed up to the max. I recall listening to a podcast review of 42 in which one of the film critics complained that the racism was not real because actual threats to the life of Jackie Robinson was not shown. It's as though the film makers don't trust contemporary viewers to understand the daily indignities of racism unless it is amped up to a perpetual Klan rally.

        • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Torryz/ Torryz

          I know that more was fake in Argo but for the sake of space and time I only stated one example.

          • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

            80% of Argo was pure fantasy.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/wuggles/ B. Smith

    I think it's okay. They're not really pushing it as "100% true" so they can add whatever fictional elements they want. I didn't really get the impression from the trailers that it was a straight up docudrama. I see it as being more like "The Social Network", based on true events but highly fictionalized. Unlike, say, Zero Dark Thirty, which in my opinion sold itself on being the 100% true story of how they caught Bin Laden.

  • jessied44

    This would definitely not be the first time that several real people were merged into one character in order concisely tell a story that would be unwieldy if they told the "absolute truth". Certainly, these events happened to people so no lies are being told just for effect. The story and the events were important. Whether or not this works in the context of the film without feeling as if they are being manipulative rather than explanatory will have to be judged by watching.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Kimberlesk/ Kimberlesk

    Interesting post, Brad. Thanks for the information. I will read the article you linked. But just wanted to say that Forrest Gump wasn't a real person, but the film depicted real events and it went on to win Best Picture.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/andyluvsfilms/ andyluvsfilms

    I don't particular mind, it only bothers me when I feel my emotions are being manipulated as in The Impossible

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/lawhs89/ lawhs89

    I like my "based on a true story" to be close anyway. A movie like "Gangster's Squad" was not even close.

  • Joseph Bridges

    I really could care less about any film being true to the story. Even with The Butler, I can assure you that Gaines (Allen's) life was probably pretty boring other than the fact that he served in the White House. I'm glad The Butler was entertaining and a look into the issues of the time and not a retelling of actual events frame by frame.

    I would bet a good screenwriter could make an interesting movie about my life even though I am a boring person. I would probably end being a psychopath killer because I am short tempered or maybe an international spy just because I have been to England and France in my past. Either of those two options make for a better story rather than telling my life of crappy jobs in customer service positions while playing board games with my friends on my days off.

  • dodrade

    Turning John Nash's wife into a white woman didn't do A Beautiful Mind any harm at oscar time.

  • http://whitehousememories.com Alan DeValerio

    I haven't seen the movie yet, but I worked as a White House butler alongside Gene Allen. While working at the White House was always an adventure, I wouldn't expect that a movie could be made about it. Movies have to sell. There needs to be conflict, hence the story you see on the screen. Real life, even at the White House, can be boring!

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

    It's a Hollywood film - which means that it's about 5-10% true. The "based on a true story" thing is generally just a gimmick Hollywood uses to promote whatever agenda it has up its sleeve.

  • David Warr

    I was looking forward to this movie when I thought that the story was true. I am not much interested in it now.