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Why I Hated Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Eugene Allen - The Real Butler

The Real Butler

I have to admit: the story was compelling. I was drawn in. It was well acted. It resurrected all my feelings about racial injustice I experienced as a late 1960’s teen. It reminded me of all my liberal angst.  After all, it was based upon a “true story.”   But then I found out just how much of it was fiction, a political stage to vent misplaced rage, and how cynical a manipulation is Hollywood in its use of “history” to reinforce its arrogant condescension.  The true in the “true story” is that there was a man who worked as a butler in the White House, but that is about as far as it went.  The rest of this is spoiler, so be forewarned.

For the documentation see the Real Story here.

We’re not trying to set out a word-for-word retelling of historical events. We’re trying to tell the story of the Civil Rights movement through a prototypical American family and how they experienced those turbulent times. …we were much more concerned about a universal truth than we were about people criticizing if Eugene Allen did X, Y, or Z. -Danny Strong, Screenwriter (Word & Film, August 13, 2013)

Universal Truth? Then don’t lie.

Cecil Gaines is very loosely “based” on Eugene Allen. Eugene Allen’s mother was not raped by a white plantation owner. His father was not shot.  He had only one son, who served but did not die in Viet Nam.  His son was not a Freedom Rider,  did not know or serve with Martin Luther King, Jr., did not go to jail,  was not a member of the Black Panthers, and did not become a Congressman.

His wife was not an alcoholic adulteress.  All these compelling elements of the story, were glurge. This isn’t close to being based on a true story, it is a vehicle for the writer and director’s own political agenda.  What made me the most angry and the most upset was the cheap political shot a Ronald Reagan.  The writer makes it seem as if they used Eugene (Cecil) as a token Negro at a State dinner, when it was just the opposite. It was not a turning point in his career, as if Eugene suddenly saw his hypocrisy in his role of servitude.

Eugene with President Reagan and Nancy Reagan. In their living room, the Allens displayed several pictures of such moments with the Reagans.

Eugene with President Reagan and Nancy Reagan. In their living room, the Allens displayed several pictures of such moments with the Reagans.

Eugene spoke of the dinner with excitement, “I’m telling you!” he said. “I believe I’m the only butler to get invited to a state dinner.” He was correct.

Is the movie accurate in depicting President Ronald Reagan as being racist?

No. The Butler movie depicts President Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) stating that he will refuse to impose sanctions against South Africa for its racist policies. The true story behind The Butler movie reveals that the situation was much more complex than Lee Daniel’s film makes it appear. At the time, America was entangled in the Cold War with the Soviet Union and their communist allies. South Africa was the only country on the African continent that held a strong anti-communist position. Reagan’s hesitation to issue sanctions arose in part because he did not want to disrupt America’s anti-communist alliance with the country, not because he thought apartheid in South Africa was okay. The sanctions would have also impacted the least affluent in the country first, who were mainly the blacks there.

I think the most genuine part of the movie was the election of Barak Obama and what it meant to the black community. Not that I agree with the political reality, which turned out entirely opposite of the hope and promise, but I can understand why that hope for overcoming generations of injustice was signaled by his election.  It meant, and still does, an end to racial inequality; even if the latent prejudice of racism remains in the hearts of some men.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “the law cannot make a man love me,” and that remains true today. But the evidence that a majority of Americans can see past color to vote for a policy means that race is no longer the deciding factor in American politics; unless of course one cynically uses the false charge of racism to disqualify opposing political ideas.

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