When Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips was released last month, it was quickly accompanied with allegations that much of the film was made up. A handful of the men from Phillips’ own crew claimed that Greengrass’ film glamorized the real Captain Richard Phillips. In real life, the crewmen say, Phillips “wasn’t the big leader,” and was “real arrogant,” bordering on dangerous. Soon after these allegations were reported in major media outlets, film enthusiasts began penning essays asking readers the very question I’m asking in the headline of this post.
But I can see that I’m digging myself into a bit of a hole here. One of this year’s films with an undeniably massive heart is Lee Daniels’ The Butler. It’s a story of a man who dedicated his life to serving others for love of country, and love for family. I enjoyed the film. It had its faults, but I was going to focus my review on highlighting its strong performances. But I never wrote that review. Why? Because shortly after seeing the film, I did a little research and discovered much of The Butler was complete bullshit. I looked into the accusations of the film’s many falsities via several different sources. It was the same everywhere. The Butler lied to manipulate its audience into caring. And upon discovering these lies, I found myself immediately against the film.
I’m digging myself deeper. “Manipulation” is a term I hate when used in film criticism. The film medium, as defined, is manipulative. Its aim is to manipulate our emotions for a response. An editing cut is manipulative. Musical score is manipulative. An actor’s facial expression is manipulative. And so on. Manipulation itself isn’t the problem, because every film (including, or especially, documentaries) manipulates us. But The Butler was different.
(Note: This paragraph contains spoilers for The Butler. Jump to the next graph if you don’t want aspects of the movie ruined.) In the opening scene of Daniels’ film, a young Cecil Gaines (who would later become The Butler), watches a plantation owner rape Cecil’s mother then kill his father in cold blood. It’s a truly startling sequence, that is entirely made up. Later in the film, Gaines’ wife (played by Oprah Winfrey) is shown as a drunk floozy who sleeps around. Nope, not true. Remember when the Gaines’ learn that their youngest son was killed in Vietnam? Didn’t happen. Remember the oldest Gaines boy, who becomes a Freedom Rider, then a Black Panther, before running for national office? Completely false. In real life, Eugene Allen (as that is his real name) and his wife, Helene, only had one son, who served in and survived Vietnam. He never joined the civil rights movement or ran for office. (Spoilers done.)
These claims for The Butler go on and on, I only pointed out the most egregious ones. But if you saw the film, you know the scenes (or whole characters) I just mentioned existed solely for the audience to gain sympathy for its title character. I’m certainly not trying to take anything away from Eugene Allen or the service he gave to his country, but it’s obvious that his real life wasn’t unique enough to merit a film (at least in the eyes of The Butler’s producer, Harvey Weinstein), so it was embellished to the point of absurdity, and I loathe the film for it.
But am I right to detest the film? One could argue that practically every film based on a true story alters the truth to make for a more cinematically pleasing experience. Sports biopics are a chief offender. Rudy never made a game-closing sack, The Permian Panthers didn’t make it to the championship as depicted in Friday Night Lights, Philip Seymour Hoffman admitted to turning Art Howe into a complete asshole as a means of giving Moneyball a villain. These claims are endless. Hell, Antwone Fisher, one of my favorite films based on a true story, is a wildly Hollywoodized version of Fisher’s actual post-teenage life. Yet I still utterly adore that film.
We all know the reasoning behind these cinematic face-lifts. “It’s impossible to fit an entire life into a two hour movie,” “We had to adjust the time frame to move things along,” “A composite character was made to articulate points more clearly.” Yes, okay, fine. But raping and killing people as a means of manipulating my emotions goes way beyond slight Hollywood touch-ups. It’s a cheap ploy to fill seats and shed tears, so that word of mouth will spread, thereby filling more seats and earning more money.
The more I thought about the notion of “Based on a True Story” as a problem, the more I tried to think of films that actually dumbed their story down to be believable. Films that chopped considerably, as opposed to adding gratuitously. Raging Bull was the first to come to mind. If you’ve read Jake LaMotta’s autobiography, or listened to first hand accounts of people who knew and loved him, you know Martin Scorsese and his writers left out a great deal from their film. Jake LaMotta did indeed do everything depicted in Raging Bull, but in reality, he was a far more abusive monster than Robert De Niro portrayed him as. Scorsese was aware of this, and he knew that if he told LaMotta’s life as it happened, too much horror would be crammed into two hours, to the point that it would be unrealistic.
Now, does that make Jake LaMotta’s life more cinematically pleasing than Eugene Allen’s? Possibly, but that’s not the point. I’ve always managed to brush “Based on a True Story” off and buy into whatever excuses were fed to me. But The Butler, despite having its heart cemented firmly in the right place, was ruined for me because it lied so blatantly. Should we let “Based on a True Story” affect our feelings toward a film so drastically, or should we accept that liberties will always be taken in “True Story” movies? After all, they are just movies, right? You tell me.