While serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild, for example, “Ronald Reagan called upon the entertainment industry to provide greater employment for black actors.” That position was controversial at the time.
When giving his infamous “evil empire” speech in March 1983 against the Soviet Union, Reagan also attacked the “the resurgence of some hate groups preaching bigotry and prejudice” in America.
These examples came after the historians recount the time when young Reagan brought two African American football teammates home from college to spend the night with his family.
That is hardly the “sense” of Reagan that one gets from the Lee Daniels film the historians explain.
The four historians, who have more than a dozen Reagan biographies between them, are Stephen F. Hayward, whose books include “The Age of Reagan”; Paul Kengor, author of 2007’s “The Crusader”; Craig Shirley, who wrote last year’s “Rendezvous With Destiny” and the 2005 book “Reagan’s Revolution”; and Kiron K. Skinner who has compiled several books on Reagan’s life including “Reagan’s Path to Victory.”
They say they are concerned “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,” they add.
“The Butler” is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, an African American who worked as a butler in the White House under eight presidents and resigned during Reagan’s tenure. Allen’s character is named Cecil Gaines in the movie.
The quartet of historians are mainly concerned about two instances they say are inaccurately portrayed in the movie, which has topped the box office ratings for the past two weeks.
The first is when Gaines, played by Forest Whitaker, is given a personal invitation to attend a state dinner, but he is seen feeling very uncomfortable because “he feels he’s being used as a political tool, a prop, a token African American.”
However, the Religion News Service said Allen “was especially fond of the Reagans,” and a fellow member of Allen’s church said that the butler “often talked about how nice they were to him.” The historians point out while it is true that Allen left his position during the Reagan presidency, but it was on good terms and “he received a ‘sweet note’ from the president and a hug from the first lady.”
The other instance takes place when Reagan promises to “veto any sanctions against South Africa.” The Republican congresswoman meeting with him pleads with him over the matter saying that it is right thing to do and congressional Republicans are in agreement. The supposed reason for Reagan’s refusal to support sanctions against the racist government is that he is “apparently unsympathetic to black suffering.”
“While accurate in depicting Reagan’s opposition to sanctions against South Africa, ‘The Butler’ does not explain why he opposed them,” the historians write. “Reagan saw sanctions as harmful to the poorest of South Africans: millions of blacks living in dire poverty. He also feared that the apartheid regime could be replaced by a Marxist government allied with the Soviet Union and Cuba and that communism would spread throughout the continent.
“South African blacks were denied rights under apartheid, but communism would mean no freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion, conscience, emigration, travel or even property for anyone,” the historians explain.
“Moreover, in communist nations such as Cambodia and Ethiopia, people had been slaughtered and starved on mass scales . . . He didn’t want South Africa to undergo the same catastrophe,” they add.
They explain that Reagan had a policy of “constructive engagement” in which he was trying to keep South Africa in the anti-Soviet category “while encouraging the country toward black-majority rule.”
They cite a speech he gave to the United Nations on September 24, 1984, in which he said that it was “a moral imperative that South Africa’s racial policies evolve peacefully but decisively toward . . . justice, liberty, and human dignity.”
The historians explain that one of Reagan’s “successes was the Angola Namibia agreement, which led to the withdrawal of the white South African regime from Namibia and paved the way for that nation’s independence.”
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“The Butler,” they argue, does not address any of these complexities.
It is not the first time that Reagan is unfairly portrayed as a racist, they say, but the historical record paints a different picture. Films like ”The Butler” can be a good place to address our racial past, but not if they are filled with inaccuracies.
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