Prominent historians of Ronald Reagan say the portrayal of the former presidents views on race in The Butler perpetuates stereotypes and inaccuracies that critics have used for decades to mar his legacy.
The four historians, authors of more than a dozen biographies about Reagan, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post in August raising concerns about the depiction of Reagan in Lee Daniels’ film The Butler.
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The film chronicles the experiences of the late White House butler Eugene Allen, who worked under eight presidents. Although the film is largely intended to be an inspirational story about Allen, the historians wrote that scenes involving Reagan are oversimplified and factually incorrect.
Steven Hayward, the first visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy at the University of Colorado Boulder and one of the authors of the op-ed, said in an interview Thursday that the film is just the latest example of attempts by Reagan’s critics to define his views as hostile toward minorities.
"It shuts down debate when you call people racists," Hayward said.
"It’s meant to cement in place the overall minority support the Democratic Party enjoys. There’s a partisan agenda behind this; they want to keep politics polarizing in this way to support the Democratic Party’s governing coalitions."
Two particular incidents in the film falsely interpret Reagan’s attitudes on race, the historians said.
The butler character—named Cecil Gaines and played by Forest Whitaker in the film—appears uncomfortable at a state dinner that he was invited to by Nancy Reagan. He resigns from his post shortly afterward in the film, unwilling to be used as a "political tool" or a "token African American," the historians said.
Another scene shows Reagan telling a Republican congresswoman that he will veto any sanctions against South Africa’s white apartheid regime. The film offers few reasons for his obstinacy.
Both portrayals mischaracterize Reagan’s sensitivity to racial issues and the complexity of his policies, the historians said.
The historians added that Reagan’s opposition to imposing sanctions on South Africa was driven more by his concern for millions of impoverished blacks. He also feared that the country could drift into the orbit of the Soviet Union and adopt a totalitarian regime.
Communist regimes in Cambodia and Ethiopia slaughtered and starved hundreds of thousands of people, a fate they said Reagan wanted South Africa to avoid.
His policy of "constructive engagement" sought to strike a balance between ensuring South Africans retained their jobs and remained anti-Soviet while encouraging rule by the country’s black majority, they said.
Reagan called apartheid and the denial of rights to blacks "morally wrong and politically unacceptable" in a 1986 speech.
"If [South Africa] wishes to belong to the family of Western nations, an end to apartheid is a precondition," he said. "Americans, I believe, are united in this conviction. Second, apartheid must be dismantled. Time is running out for the moderates of all races in South Africa."
Reagan’s administration also mediated an agreement that led to the withdrawal of 50,000 Cuban troops from Angola and independence for Namibia from South Africa’s white regime, the historians said.
Additionally, Allen "often talked about how nice [the Reagans] were to him," according to a Religion News Service article featuring interviews with members of the Greater First Baptist Church he attended in Washington, D.C. A profile of Allen by the Post’s Wil Haygood, the inspiration for Daniels’ film, also notes that President Reagan "wrote him a sweet note" when he left the White House in 1986 after 34 years. Nancy Reagan "hugged him, tight," according to the article.
Hayward said Reagan’s policies on employment discrimination have also been traditionally perceived as harmful to minorities. However, Hayward said the Reagan administration’s application of a higher burden of proof of discriminatory intent before an employment discrimination case could be brought to courts actually reflected his concern for individual victims rather than classes or racial groups.
"They were against rigid racial quotas, which is what the civil rights establishment wanted and the [Jimmy] Carter administration was pushing," he said.
He added that civil rights enforcement actually increased relative to levels under the Carter administration.
Critics will likely continue to invoke some comments by Reagan to paint him in a negative light, the historians said. However, they said they hope films like The Butler spark a more complete appraisal of Reagan’s stance on racial issues.