One accusation that has been leveled against Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013, dir. Lee Daniels) is that it depicts the Reagan White House unfairly. For example, Michael Reagan, President Reagan’s son, wrote that to depict “Ronald Reagan as a racist because he was in favor of lifting economic sanctions against South Africa is simplistic and dishonest.” Ben Shapiro of Breitbart News complained that “[Eugene] Allen had warm relations with all the presidents with whom he served, and left the White House in 1980 with a hug from Ronald Reagan; Cecil Gaines, leaves the White House in rage over Reagan’s stance on South African apartheid. The film depicts Eisenhower as a colorless milquetoast, largely ignores southern Democrats’ support for Jim Crow during the 1960s and paints Reagan as slightly senile.” Reagan biographer Paul Kengor blasted one scene in which Reagan refuses to accept a bill that would have imposed economic sanctions on South Africa due to its Apartheid system of segregation, because the film offered no wider political context for Reagan’s decision.
So does the film merit such criticism?
It’s clear that Eugene Allen, the man on whom The Butler’s Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is based, was treated at least somewhat better than Gaines is in the film. Whereas Allen retired as the White House Maitre d’hotel at the end of his career, Gaines spends 30 years as a butler and quits when he is refused a pay raise and promotional opportunities by an unnamed supervisor. While the incident represents Gaines’ acknowledgment that some of his son Louis’ (David Oyelowo) complaints about American society are valid, the scene as it literally plays is false, and in that sense, Shapiro’s objection is valid. It undeniably misrepresents Allen’s decision to retire. (But Shapiro’s claim that Gaines quits “in rage” is a serious exaggeration; Whitaker plays the scene very quietly and calmly, with no expression of emotion at all. Nor is Reagan’s stance on Apartheid the actual issue, although it does seem to prompt his demand for a raise.)
But the film includes an incident from Allen’s life in which Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda) invites Gaines and his wife to a State Dinner as guests rather than staff. There’s a suggestion that Gaines is uncomfortable at the dinner when his co-workers are waiting on him, but apart from that, the film plays the scene as the Reagans respectfully acknowledging his long service.
The film’s whole approach to the scenes with presidents is to show Gaines quietly serving in the background while the various presidents are discussing political issues with advisors. Periodically, one of the politicians will briefly acknowledge Gaines in a more personal way. President Kennedy tells him that he didn’t understand how deeply black people were hated until he saw the treatment the Birmingham marchers received, and after the assassination, Jackie Kennedy gives him one of her husband’s ties. Gaines receives a tie-pin from President Johnson. The film also shows him attending Johnson in a vulgar scene in which a constipated Johnson is sitting on a toilet discussing racial issues with his advisors just outside the bathroom door. The film spends more time on Richard Nixon (John Cusack) than anyone else, showing him as Vice-President trying to get the black staff at the White House to vote for him, and as President discussing how to deal with the Black Panthers and then drunk and despondent just before his resignation. Ford and Carter don’t even appear, except in news clips. So in most scenes, the presidents and their advisors treat Gaines as a domestic servant, but the film scatters in a few brief personal conversations, at least one each for Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan.
In Reagan’s case, the personal scene comes when Reagan (Alan Rickman) asks Gaines to mail a letter to a constituent. The constituent is having economic problems, and Reagan wants to send some money, but Nancy and his staff object to him doing this. So he asks Gaines to do it on the sly. It’s a scene that humanizes Reagan for the viewer, although it doesn’t say anything about Reagan’s attitude toward Gaines. Personally, I think Reagan comes off quite well in that scene.
Nor does the film “paint Reagan as slightly senile” as Ben Shapiro charges. I certainly saw no sign of that in the film. And it’s worth pointing out that Reagan, who died of Alzheimer’s 16 years after leaving office, almost certainly had the disease while he was president. His son Ron Reagan Jr has said that he saw traces of the characteristic confusion in his father as early as 1984, and reporter Lesley Stahl did as well. So had the film chosen to explore that facet of Reagan’s time in office, it would have had justification for doing so.
Reagan and Apartheid
However, the essence of the complaints about the film is really that the film treats Reagan poorly because it includes a scene in which South African Apartheid is an issue, and implies that Reagan was racist. Gaines is serving Reagan during a meeting with unnamed Republicans who are seeking to persuade the president to not veto the 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which aimed to impose economic sanctions on the white South African government because of the country’s system of segregation, which became infamous during the 1980s. During the scene, Reagan says twice that he has made up his mind to veto the bill, without explaining why.
Reagan did veto the bill, which had bipartisan support, but his veto was overridden by a substantial margin in both houses. It was, in fact the first time in the 20th century that a veto of a foreign policy bill was overridden, and it was seen as a significant defeat for Reagan. After the override, Reagan released a statement attributing his veto to a concern that the bill would hurt the people it was intended to help.
So the scene is essentially accurate. Republicans did press Reagan to accept the bill and he did in fact veto it. And it’s hard to argue that the film should have ignored the event. The whole film is about the dismantling of segregation in the US, and the CAAA played in role in helping to bring about the end of Apartheid in South Africa, so its inclusion in the film is appropriate. But the film does not make any statement that Reagan was motivated by racism. Kengor is correct that the film does not explore any wider context for the bill or Reagan’s decision, but I’m not sure that the film could have provided a meaningful context without going substantially out of its way.
Is this film biased against Reagan? Does it depict Reagan as a racist? I don’t think so. If it had wanted to paint Reagan in a negative light on race issues, it could certainly have done so by including reference to his use of the racist Southern Strategy to woo racist whites into the Republican Party, for example by using coded language about ‘welfare queens’ and ‘young bucks’, or his decision to kick off his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, an obscure town whose only claim to fame is the lynching of three Civil Rights activists in 1964, or his 1982 defense of Bob Jones University, which was losing federal funding because of its ban on interracial dating. It could have mentioned that Reagan declared the Voting Rights Act “humiliating to the South”, or that he described Confederate president Jefferson Davis as a personal hero. It could have highlighted Reagan’s 1980 campaign manager, Lee Atwater, who explicitly acknowledged the role coded racism played in the campaign. In a film dealing with race and racism in the United States, inclusion of these events would have been entirely reasonable.
The fact that Reagan was friendly to domestic servants in the White House and once hugged Eugene Allen doesn’t really occlude the numerous ways that Reagan used racism as a tool during his political career. Michael Reagan insists that his father was not a racist and at various points did nice things for black friends; that may well be true but it doesn’t mean that Reagan can’t have exploited racism to further his own goals. It is entirely possible to have black friends and yet still say and do racist things. So whether Reagan’s veto of the CAAA was motivated by racism or something else entirely, the film uses the incident as an example of the way Reagan’s policies looked quite different to blacks than to whites. Given that the whole movie is about how black people viewed America and American politics in this period, that’s an entirely reasonable approach. Could the film have gone into deeper detail about Reagan’s decidedly mixed record on racial issues? Could it have provided more of the context Paul Kengor wanted by delving into the Reagan administration’s policies and the political strategy Reagan used to win two elections? Absolutely, but had it done so, I think Reagan would have come off much worse than he does in the film.
Want to Know More?
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is available on Amazon. The article that inspired the film was released as a promotional piece for the film, along with some material about the making of the film. You can get it as The Butler: A Witness to History, but it’s probably not worth the money. You can find the original article here.