September 2, 2013
What 'The Butler' gets wrong about Ronald Reagan and race (Steven F. Hayward, Paul Kengor, Craig Shirley and Kiron K. Skinner, 9/02/13, Visions & Values)
One cold evening in Dixon, Ill., in the early 1930s, a young man known as Dutch Reagan brought home two African American teammates from his Eureka College football team. The team was on the road, and the local hotels had refused the two black players. So Reagan invited them to spend the night and have breakfast with his family.In November 1952, in one of his final meetings as president of Hollywood's Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan called upon the entertainment industry to provide greater employment for black actors. His stand went against the times and received national media attention.As president, in the same March 1983 speech in which he called the Soviet regime an "evil empire," Reagan decried "the resurgence of some hate groups preaching bigotry and prejudice" in America. And at a reception for the National Council of Negro Women in July of that year, Reagan declared: "I've lived a long time, but I can't remember a time in my life when I didn't believe that prejudice and bigotry were the worst of sins."These are just a few examples of Reagan's sensitivity to racial discrimination. This attitude was instilled by his mother, who was deeply involved in the Disciples of Christ, and his father, who refused to allow him to see the movie "Birth of a Nation" because it glorified the Ku Klux Klan.But you don't get any sense of that in the film "Lee Daniels' The Butler."Based on an article by The Washington Post's Wil Haygood, adapted for the screen by Danny Strong and directed by Daniels, "The Butler" is the story of Eugene Allen, an inspiring African American who worked under eight presidents in the White House, Reagan among them. As historians of the 40th president, having written more than a dozen biographies between us, we are troubled by the movie's portrayal of Reagan's attitudes toward race. We are especially concerned because many Americans readily accept Hollywood depictions of history as factual.Two particular incidents in the film concern us:The butler character (played by Forest Whitaker) is invited by the Reagans to a state dinner, a gracious move wholly typical of the first family. The butler's wife (Oprah Winfrey) clearly enjoys the evening, but the butler is portrayed as uncomfortable. He feels he's being used as a political tool, a prop, a token African American. Shortly after this supposed humiliation, he resigns from his White House job.In reality, Allen felt no such thing. As noted by Religion News Service, "He was especially fond of the Reagans." A member of Allen's church recalled that "he often talked about how nice they were to him." Allen did leave the White House during the Reagan administration, but as Haygood's profile mentioned, he received a "sweet note" from the president and a hug from the first lady.
Posted by Orrin Judd at September 2, 2013 10:05 AM