Lee Daniels' The Butler': Reagan Biographers Slam President's Portrayal

The Butler one sheet - P 2013

Paul Kengor, author of two books about the 40th president, says some scenes could amount to "Hollywood malpractice" and "ideologically driven fiction."

Two biographers of Ronald Reagan are criticizing Lee Daniels’ The Butler for what they say is an inaccurate portrayal, slamming what they call an insinuation that the 40th president was indifferent to suffering under apartheid in South Africa and, more generally, that he was racially insensitive.

“I’ve talked to many White House staff, cooks, housekeepers, doctors, and Secret Service over the years. They are universal in their love of Ronald Reagan,” said Paul Kengor, author of two books about Reagan, The Crusader and God and Ronald Reagan.

The sentiment was echoed by Kiron Skinner, who co-authored several books about Reagan and the Cold War, including Reagan, In His Own Hand. She said that when a supporter challenged him on his record on race in 1975, Reagan wrote back: “In my eight years [as governor] more negroes were appointed to executive and policymaking positions in state government than had been appointed by all the previous California governors put together. You are absolutely right that our job is getting our story across."

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Skinner added: “Then there is the fact that Mrs. Reagan, acting on behalf of herself and President Reagan, granted me access to President Reagan’s private papers at a time, 1996, when the only other person to have access to the papers was Edmund Morris, the official biographer.  So it was Morris and me -- and I happen to be black.”

The remarks from Kengor and Skinner come after another Reagan biographer, Craig Shirley, blasted The Butler for inaccuracies on Wednesday, and it appears conservatives may have lined up other experts eager to weigh in on The Butler’s treatment of Reagan.

A primary scene involving Reagan in The Butler has the president steadfastly and without explanation refusing to support a bill that would authorize economic sanctions against South Africa over its then-policy of racial segregation, known as apartheid. Kengor says, though, that the filmmakers have engaged in “ideologically driven fiction” by including such a scene without any context.

“Ronald Reagan was appalled by apartheid, but also wanted to ensure that if the apartheid regime collapsed in South Africa that it wasn’t replaced by a Marxist-totalitarian regime allied with Moscow and Cuba that would take the South African people down the same road as Ethiopia, Mozambique, and, yes, Cuba,” Kengor said. “Clearly, blacks in South Africa lost rights under apartheid, but Communism was a far greater infringement … In Communist nations, people were literally lined up and slaughtered  -- and starved -- on mass scales. Has everyone forgotten this?”

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He added: “In the immediate years before Reagan became president, 11 countries from the Third World, from Asia to Africa to Latin America, went Communist. It was devastating. If the film refuses to deal with this issue with the necessary balance, it shouldn’t deal with it at all."

The Butler, which The Weinstein Co. opened wide today, is based on the story of Eugene Allen, an African-American who worked at the White House from 1952-1986. In the movie, though, the butler’s name is Cecil Gaines, played by Forrest Whitaker. Oprah Winfrey plays his wife, Gloria, while Alan Rickman is Ronald Reagan and Jane Fonda is Nancy Reagan.

In another scene, Nancy Reagan invites the Gaineses as guests to a dinner party -- though once there, Cecil is portrayed as feeling out of place and even used as window dressing designed to suggest diversity at an affair where the guests were predominantly white while the staffers were black.

Kengor called the scene unfair.

“This unusually kind invitation would have been a typical nice gesture by the Reagans, who throughout their lives did thoughtful things like this. To portray it as anything else is cruel,” Kengor said.

The Butler is based on an article from journalist Wil Haygood, whose brief mention of the dinner party didn’t indicate any discomfort felt by the butler. Haywood wrote:

“’Had champagne that night,’ the butler’s wife would remember all these years later. As she said it, Eugene, rocking in his chair, just grinned: for so many years he had stocked champagne in the White House."

Said Kengor: “The screenwriter and makers of this film better have some hard evidence for this. I hope they have at least some quotes somewhere from the butler saying he felt like a prop. If they don’t, then they should be ashamed of themselves. If they don’t, then this is Hollywood malpractice.”

The Weinstein Co., The Butler writer Danny Strong and director Lee Daniels did not respond to requests for comment.

Email: Paul.Bond@THR.com