Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in a scene from Lee Daniels’s The Butler. (AP Photo/The Weinstein Company/Anne Marie Fox)
Have you heard about the right-wing outrage over The Butler, the movie about the faithful White House retainer who served under presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan, and transforms himself from a Booker T. Washington to a W.E.B. Du Bois under the tutelage of his civil rights activist son?
The movie presents a sort of Forrest Gump journey through the American civil rights movement, from Eisenhower’s anguish over whether to send federal troops to escort black students past the racist mobs into Little Rock High School to the 1980s protests over apartheid. When I heard about it, I was skeptical. I wrote on Facebook before the first time I tried to see it (it was sold out; my mostly black neighborhood is crazy about the thing) that I “will try to keep open mind but dollars to donuts my dominant impression will be: ‘When there’s finally a movie about a white man serving as foil to the moral development of a black man—then, and only then, Dr. King’s dream will be on its way to fulfillment.” You know the kind of thing I was afraid of: the “Magical Negro” narrative, in which a black character “who often possesses special insight or mystical powers” exists only to come to the spiritual aid of the white protagonist.
It turned out to be far richer than I’d expected—not another Bagger Vance retread but in fact a refreshingly pointed examination of political conflict within African-American families. In a key plot setup—spoiler approaching—Cecil Gaines, the hyper-competent, hyper-compliant butler played by Forest Whitaker, is inspired by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. to present himself to his martinet boss, played by an icy Jim Gleason, to complain that black White House employees are paid less for the same work and are denied opportunities for promotion. In response, he hears the glorious battle cry of freedom beloved of American bosses everywhere: if you don’t like it, you can quit.
Soon, though, comes the reign of Ronald Reagan, and a second key plot development (spoiler alert). The second time his boss refuses his protest, Whitaker’s butler responds that he’ll be sure to tell the commander-in-chief, Mr. Reagan, about his objections. The boss’s jaw, proverbially, drops, the black staffers get their raises and promotions, and the wisdom of Booker T. Washington’s advice to generations of black men—that the best way to advance is to do your job exceptionally well and to cultivate powerful white patrons—is affirmed. Then, however, in one of the fictionalized film’s few accuracies, Nancy Reagan personally invites him to a state dinner—which ends up (back to fiction again) cementing his turn to Du Bois–ism: he feels the sting of shame at witnessing how his butler-friends are forced to display obsequiousness toward him; almost simultaneously, he overhears President Reagan forcefully asserting his intention to veto South African sanctions. He soon quits, and—spoiler! spoiler! spoiler!—ends up in jail with his son for protesting American accommodation with apartheid.
Cue wingnut outrage.
Columnist Mona Charen offered a quiz: Reagan or Obama, “Which president did more to help black Americans?” Why, Reagan, of course: “The black labor-force-participation rate, which rose throughout the 1980s and 1990s, has declined for the past decade and quite sharply under Obama to 61.4 percent.” Case closed. She writes: “The Butler… misrepresents President Reagan (as I gather from those who’ve seen it [sic]) as, at best, insensitive to blacks, and at worst as racist.” Michael Reagan chimed in: “There you go again, Hollywood. You’ve taken a great story about a real person and real events and twisted it into a bunch of lies,” he wrote on Townhall.com. “If you knew my father, you’d know he was the last person on Earth you could call a racist.” In The Washington Post, three historians who earn their paychecks as professional conservatives weighed in with a brief about the Gipper’s “sensitivity to racial discrimination.” (“While accurate in depicting Reagan’s opposition to sanctions against South Africa…”)
Nation readers don’t need much persuading about how dubious this stuff is—how disastrous Reagan’s policies as president were for struggling African-Americans, how (to indulge the argument ad Hitlerium) even a certain German was nice to his dog; personality is not policy. And in this magazine last July, Sam Kleiner explained how soft Reagan and Reaganites were on apartheid.
Yes, there’s plenty that’s historically haywire in the picture: chronology that’s out of order, a character dying in Vietnam eleven months after American involvement ended, made-up dialogue from people like Martin Luther King, misappropriated historical credit. But personally, speaking as a historian and a storyteller, when it comes to inaccuracy in historical fictioneering, I follow the Shakespeare principle: I’m willing to overlook gobs of mistaken detail if the poetic valence is basically correct. (Richard III, after all, probably never actually said as he lay dying on the battlefield, “My kingdom for a horse.”)
And on Reagan, The Butler’s poetry is acute. Has there ever been an American who so doted upon his kindness to individual African-Americans, who did more to disadvantage them as a class?
It was a core component of the man’s amour-propre: “I am just incapable of prejudice,” as he said on his debut on Meet the Press, in 1966, and many, many times after. Yet he distrusted civil rights laws (like the 1964 act outlawing discrimination in public accommodations that he called “a bad piece of legislation”) as unwarranted intrusions of federal power into the lives of individuals. A man who was raised by a Protestant mother who married his Catholic father in an anti-Catholic age; who played side by side with black boys; who was raised in a church that preached racial brotherhood; whose mother took in released prisoners, black and white, to convalesce in the family sewing room—how could he be racist?
There was the time he wanted to see Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s pro-Ku Klux Klan blockbuster. “My brother and I were the only kids not to see it,” he would say, reciting his father’s words: “The Klan’s the Klan, and a sheet’s a sheet, and any man who wears one over his head is a bum. And I want no more words on the subject.” And the time his father was working as a traveling salesman and the desk clerk at the only hotel in a small town proudly informed him that the place didn’t serve Jews; Jack announced they wouldn’t be serving this Catholic, either, and slept a winter’s night in his car. There was the time when a visiting team could find no hotel to stay in, for they had two black players, and were welcomed into the Reagan home instead. It was precisely such magnanimous gestures on the part of individual whites that could solve any lingering racial problem and, since Americans were magnanimous, would solve the the problem.
“There must be no lack of equal opportunity, no inequality before the law,” as he said in the televised opening speech of his 1966 gubernatorial campaign. But “there is a limit to what can be accomplished by laws and regulations, and I seriously question whether anything additional is needed in that line.” (In Washington, a new civil rights law banning housing discrimination was then being debated; in Chicago, marching through the city’s white bungalow belt in favor of the principle, Martin Luther King was jeered by swastika-wielding protesters and had knives and rocks thrown at his head.) The next year, while visiting Eureka College to dedicate a new library, he asked the students at his alma mater a rhetorical question: “The problems of the urban ghetto are the result of selfishness on our part, of indifference to suffering?”; the answer was plain. “No people in all the history of mankind have shaped so wisely its material circumstances.” Speaking again at Eureka in 1973 he marveled at those who claimed America was still marred by racism: Hadn’t Los Angeles just elected a black mayor?
It was part of his liturgy of absolution on, for instance, the subject of “law and order.” “The phrase has become unfashionable,” he said on one of his radio broadcasts in the summer of 1975. “Those who have made it so began looking askance at anyone who used the words. Their arched eyebrows were a reaction to what they would inform you that ‘law and order’ were ‘code words’ that really meant a call for racial discrimination…. Well, I think this inference of bigotry is in itself bigoted…. Are they not implying that our fellow citizens that happen to be black are so given to crime that a call for law and order is automatically a call for a curb on the black community?” He went on to cite an unidentified “survey done in the nation’s capital” that found more blacks than whites wanted “sterner action against criminals”—proving, he concluded with an extraordinarily artful rhetoric inversion, that “ ’law and order” is not a code word to blacks. It’s a cry for help—and we’d better join them.”
Indeed, in 1968 when a black questioner asked him why she never saw blacks at Republican events, he politely but forcefully replied that it wasn’t Republicans who were racist but the supposedly liberal Democrats, “a party that had betrayed them…. The Negro has delivered himself to those who have no other intention than to create a Federal plantation and ignore him.” (We’d hear that one again…) The New York Times reported, “Reagan handled the situation so smoothly that some of the newsmen aboard his chartered 727 suggested, half-seriously, that the Reagan organization had set up the incident.”
He hadn’t always handled such questions so smoothly. He almost never lost his temper in public. He did once, however, during his 1966 gubernatorial primary campaign. A delegate at the National Negro Republican Assembly in Santa Monica said, “It grieves me when a leading Republican candidate….” He then shocked the assembly by slamming down his note card and shouting, “I resent the implication that there is any bigotry in my nature. Don’t anyone ever imply I lack integrity. I will not stand silent and let anyone imply that—in this or any other group.”
He slammed his fist into his palm, muttered something and walked out of the convention.
He knew better than to blow up again. He learned to respond with pleasing stories about racial uplift instead. There was, for example, the incredible moment two days after he announced his candidacy for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination. He was in Charlotte, North Carolina. In his speech he preached a homily on racial reconciliation: “When the first bombs were dropped on Pearl Harbor there was great segregation in the military forces. In World War II, this was corrected. It was corrected largely under the leadership of generals like MacArthur and Eisenhower…. One great story that I think of at that time, that reveals a change was occurring, was when the Japanese dropped the bomb on Pearl Harbor there was a Negro sailor whose total duties involved kitchen-type duties…. He cradled a machine gun in his arms, which is not an easy thing to do, and stood on the end of a pier blazing away at Japanese airplanes that were coming down and strafing him and that was all changed.” This was news to the more historically minded reporters, who knew the armed forces integrated only under an executive order from Harry Truman, in 1948, three years after the war ended—and that segregation only ended in the rest of society after concerted protest and civil disobedience. In the press conference that followed he was asked whether he had approved Martin Luther King’s civil disobedience tactics.
No, he responded: “There can never be any justification for breaking the law.”
Then, someone followed up, how could blacks have ever gained their civil rights in places like North Carolina?
He undertook to explain, in response, “where I think the first change began…. I have often stated publicly that the great tragedy was then that we didn’t even know that we had a racial problem. It wasn’t even recognized. But our generation, and I take great pride in this, were the ones who first of all recognized and then began doing something about it.”
Reportorial ears surely pricked up at that: this was going to be something.
“I have called attention to the fact that when I was a sports announcer, broadcasting Major League baseball, most Americans had forgotten that at the time the opening lines of the official baseball guide read, ‘Baseball is a game for Caucasian gentlemen,’ and in organized baseball no one but Caucasians were allowed. Well, there were many of us when I was broadcasting, sportswriters, sportscasters, myself included, began editorializing about what a ridiculous thing this was and why it should be changed. And one day it was changed.”
And indeed, he had called attention to that supposed fact, in 1967, in a televised debate with Robert Kennedy. But if in the interim anyone had bothered to point out to him since that there was no such “official baseball guide” reading “Baseball is a game for Caucasian gentlemen”; or pointed out to him that he stopped broadcasting baseball in 1937 but that the sport wasn’t integrated until 1947; nor that no Iowans who heard him back then could recall him ever raising the subject on the air, the intervention clearly didn’t take, for he was still telling the story in the Oval Office nine years later.
That was Reagan on race. “Eugene Allen, the actual White House butler on whom the film is supposedly based, kept signed photos of Ronald and Nancy Reagan in his living room (pictures of the other presidents he had served hung in the basement),” Mona Charen writes. I don’t doubt it. Reagan was usually nice to individuals (though not so much if they were his children: don’t forget that he didn’t even recognize his own son Michael Reagan, so eager to defend his dad now, when attending his high school graduation, instead introducing himself, “My name is Ronald Reagan. What’s yours?”) In the film they accurately depict his practice of writing checks to individual citizens who wrote to him with sob stories, enlisting loyal Cecil to help him hide the practice—“Don’t tell Nancy!”—from his embarrassed staff and wife. But if The Butler is brilliant about anything, it is in grasping how this is actually the opposite of racial progress—because it makes racial progress seem unecessary. It’s the whole point of the movie. Which unsurprisingly conservatives have proven unable to grok.