At 96, Jimmy Carter is the oldest living former US president. He only served a single term, but his dedication to humanitarian efforts and down-to-earth personality have made him a favorite amongst progressives. Now documentarian Vivian Winther examines the woman who helped shape him in Miss Lillian: More Than A President’s Mother.
Lillian Carter was born in 1898 to a humble family in Southwestern Georgia. Her father ignored the segregationist norms of the time, preferring a hard work ethic over the color of someone’s skin. A passion for helping people drove her to nursing school, after which she became a successful local nurse who treated the local African American community equally alongside her white patients. Lillian Carter later dedicated her life to social activism and served in the Peace Corps, where she treated lepers in India.
When her oldest son was elected president, Lillian Carter became popular with reporters and Johnny Carson for her blend of Southern Hospitality and directness. She never hesitated to tell it like it was or put people in their place when they got out of line. Carter loved baseball, especially the Dodgers, and she became friendly with their manager Tommy Lasorda. In 1983, she succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 85. This would be after losing her husband and a daughter to pancreatic cancer.
“…Lillian Carter became popular with reporters and Johnny Carson for her blend of Southern Hospitality and directness.”
Of course, Carter’s biography can be easily found online, but what makes Miss Lillian: More Than A President’s Mother stand out is the unique way it tells her story. Rather than solely relying on interviews for memories and insights, the core is in the form of a one-woman show performed by Carol Swarbrick. Much in the way Hal Holbrook and Val Kilmer portrayed Mark Twain, Swarbrick embodies Lillian Carter. She brings to life the woman’s mannerisms and sassy personality so that we don’t just get an impression from other people, but a three-dimensional portrait “in her own words.”
It’s really Swarbrick’s performance that holds it all together. She isn’t just playing President Jimmy Carter’s mother. She is the president’s mother. Through her monologues, we get a glimpse into Carter’s complex personality. She’s tender but resilient, always polite but never afraid to speak her mind. She’s a fighter who dedicates her life to helping others, especially those less fortunate than her. All these elements come together so that we get to understand both who Carter was and how Jimmy Carter grew into the man he is.
In an archival clip, Johnny Carson describes Lillian Carter as “a picturesque, colorful and quotable woman,” and Miss Lillian: More Than A President’s Mother confirms it. She stood up for the underprivileged, not for the glory but because it needed to be done and, in doing so, set an example for us to follow. People like her change the world for the better, and we’re lucky to have them around for a while so that we can learn to be a better society. Thanks go out to Vivian Winther and Carol Swarbrick for telling us just why Lillian Carter was so much more than a president’s mother.
"…Swarbrick embodies Lillian Carter."