The Butler (movie) and Biography vs. Historical Fiction

My husband and I went to see The Butler, starring Forrest Whittaker, yesterday.

It was riveting.  I admit I cried several times.  Never once in the two hours did I wonder how much longer we had to go just… what is going to happen next?

It was a fascinating journey that spanned nearly eighty years.

I left the theater wondering if this was an actual person’s life or an amalgamation of people and events?  It seemed like too much to have happened to one person.

It was.

I found this article from The Slate, “How True is The Butler?” that discusses the differences between the life of  Eugene Allen and the movie.  It’s a lot.

It makes me wonder – should they have done that?  It’s one thing to make up a minor character or an event, but this was pure fiction inspired by the fact that there was an African-American butler who worked in the White House through many administrations.   It was good, but it was fiction.

On the one hand, I admit I felt a little bit hoodwinked by learning that he was a real person but then learning that they made up nearly every dramatic point in the movie.

On the other hand, I’m glad he didn’t personally go through all that, but somebody certainly did, many people in fact.

It’s exactly what I thought it, an amalgamation of events and lives.  It was a good movie, well acted, and I enjoyed it very much.  I just wish they’d left it at that and said it was fiction instead of making the connection to the real person as if it were about his life.

It feels disrespectful to this man whose life it was based on.  It’s like they said, your life isn’t good enough.  I think if they had focused on the drama of what he experienced in the White House, that would have been enough for a good movie, but they had to sensationalize it to make a “BOX OFFICE SMASH!”

As a writer, I know and expect that memoirs are subject to the vagaries of memory and perspective.  I also appreciate that the best historical fiction and science fiction are born out of fact.  When it comes to fiction, I staunchly defend the author’s right to write the story they have to tell.

This is different.  This was someone’s life that was subverted into a drama for the screen and sold to viewers with the idea that it was based on his life.

What do you think?  Is it too soon?  Was it disrespectful to change his life so much?  They aren’t claiming all the events really happened to him, so why does it feel so… disrespectful?


  1. Michelle said,

    August 25, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    The first thing I did when I got home was to google the facts about the actual butler too! And at first i was slightly disappointed, but then I decided that I don’t find it disrespectful at all and I’ll tell you why. First of all, anytime a book or movie says it is “inspired” by true events I assume it to be historical fiction, which is much different than claiming to be a biography. Nowhere in the title or credits do they claim it to be a biography. They don’t even use his real name. I think Eugene Allen (the real life butler) should be proud to have lived a life that would inspire such a touching and thought provoking journey through history. Like you said, all of those things may not have happened to one man, but they all happened. Sometimes it takes a little fiction to suck us in so that we are reminded of all the facts. As long as they aren’t claiming its a biography it doesn’t bother me. I think this was a fascinating and important movie that will stick with me for s long long time.

    • melorajohnson said,

      August 25, 2013 at 9:29 pm

      Thanks for sharing your perspective!

  2. August 28, 2013 at 10:15 am

    […] The Butler (movie) and Biography vs. Historical Fiction ( […]

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