Back in 1972 my family went to see Lady Sings the Blues, the film about Billie Holiday, starring Diana Ross. As we watched the scene where Harry first introduces her to heroin, my father turned to us and said, “That’s wrong. He’s not the guy who gave her heroin, it was Jimmy Monroe.”
And that was just the first of many inaccuracies and perhaps downright fabrications that I was made aware of in that movie.
The Wikipedia article on Lady Sings the Blues calls it a biographical drama film, loosely based on her autobiography; and in reading the plot of the movie and comparing it with the article about the real Billie, I definitely see where the “loosely based on” comes in.
However, Lady Sings the Blues was, once again, a biographical drama film, and not a documentary. It was a dramatic presentation about her life in broad strokes that would capture the audience’s attention, and maybe inspire them to find out more about her, not an episode of Biography. To tell the story within the already long 144 minutes some details had to be left out, certain incidents and people had to be combined; and to avoid lawsuits from those who were still alive, certain names had to be changed.
The movie was what some theologians would describe as “true, but not factual.”
And this wasn’t the first movie biography that “got it wrong.” The 1953 film Houdini ended with the famous escape artist dying dramatically in a failed escape attempt rather than from a much more pedestrian case of peritonitis. Once again, this was a feature film that was loosely based on the life of a real person, and not a documentary.
I could go on an on with examples, but I think you get my point.
All of which brings me to the recent movie The Butler. It is supposedly based on the life of real-life former White House butler Eugene Allen.
And that’s where the trouble begins.
In the column The Butler from Another Planet, Michael Reagan complains that the character of Cecil Gaines in the movie is nothing like the real Eugene Allen. He also complains that the movie dishonestly portrayed the workings of the White House during the administration of his father Ronald. He states that once again Hollywood has “taken a great story about a real person and twisted it into a bunch of lies.”
When I first read this column, I, being the librarian that I am, decided to do a little research to find out what was going on. That’s when I found out that, contrary to popular understanding, The Butler is not based on the life of Cecil Gaines. Rather, it’s a movie inspired by his life. To be more specific, it’s inspired by the idea of telling the story of a person who worked backstage at the White House for over 30 years, and seeing history through that person’s eyes. It’s a great idea.
And it’s been done before. The 1979 miniseries Backstairs at the White House, based on the book My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House, followed Lillian Rogers Parks and other members of the White House domestic staff through the administrations of presidents Taft through Eisenhower. It’s available from Amazon if you’re interested.
The difference here is that The Butler is about a fictional member of the White House domestic staff, while Backstairs at the White House is about the real people. And as a work of fiction, it is allowed to take even more liberties with the facts than Lady Sings the Blues did. Moreover, it’s a work of fiction about how a particular fictional character saw the Civil Rights Era from his position as a member of the White House domestic staff. It is not, and doesn’t pretend to be, a documentary on the presidents in office at the time. It doesn't pretend to be the biography of Eugene Allen. That’s something that both Michael Reagan and the general public need to understand. And once everyone understands that this is a work of fiction loosely based on history, the charges of twisting Allen's story "into a bunch of lies" should go away.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go watch Hyde Park on Hudson.