Daniels’ Inaccurate Portrayal is Unfair to the U.S.’s 40th President: “Hollow-Weird” Gets it Wrong (Surprise, Surprise) — Again
By Ken K. Gourdin
I recently saw the film Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which is loosely based on the life of African American White House butler Eugene Allen, portrayed in the film as Cecil Gaines. The film takes certain liberties with Gaines/Allen’s life in order effectively to relate the horrors and injustices endured by blacks in the Jim Crow south. I was not as alarmed by those liberties as some (see, e.g., Michael Reagan’s critique of the film which is referenced, cited, and linked below). Whatever Allen did or did not experience, there’s no escaping the horrors that blacks endured during this shameful chapter of our history. But there are other problems with the film, particularly with its portrayal of President Ronald Reagan.
What disturbed me more was the disparity between portrayals of Republican and Democrat presidents, respectively. Actors who portrayed Democrat presidents depicted during Gaines/Allen’s White House tenure engaged less in caricature and more in characterization, while the opposite was true of Alan Rickman, who portrayed President Reagan (the only Republican president, other than President Richard Nixon, whose interaction with Allen is shown on film): unfortunately, Rickman engaged more in caricature and less in characterization.
Since President Barack Obama was accorded the honor of “starring as himself” through the use of file footage, I wonder if there is a specific protocol for portraying a sitting president on film. While, admittedly, my research has been something less than exhaustive, I have been unable to locate information regarding any such protocol. In fairness, the producers could not effectively have used file footage for other presidents on the one hand while including those presidents’ interactions with Allen/Gaines [through the actors portraying the former] on the other hand.) A future interaction between Allen/Gaines and Obama was implied at the end of the film as a then-current White House Staff member escorts Allen/Gaines to a meeting with President Obama (and is told by Gaines, “I know the way”), but the Obama-Gaines interaction itself is not portrayed directly.
As for Rickman, to effectively portray someone (particularly someone who actually lived) an actor must make some effort to understand the world as the person understood it—and to understand why such a view of the world made sense to the person who held it, even if it would not have made sense to anyone else—rather than simply throwing up one’s hands and concluding that there’s no way any mentally well-adjusted, rational, reasonably intelligent human being possibly could see the world as the person being portrayed saw it. Such actors must make some effort to envision at least one universe (in an infinite number of potential universes) in which a reasonable person possibly could (however unlikely the prospect) see the world as the person being portrayed saw it.
But, alas . . . [Sigh!] . . . Rickman, who portrayed (the undoubtedly maladjusted, irrational, and/or unintelligent) Reagan, simply had to do the best he could to carry out such an unenviable task as realistically as possible without unduly playing up Reagan’s alleged aforementioned undesirable traits. After all, alas, this is “Hollow-Weird” (aka Hollywood). Expecting writers, producers, directors, and actors to strive for characterization rather than caricature when it comes to conservative, overtly-religious, or otherwise allegedly “non-mainstream” points of view is, for the overwhelming majority of them, a bridge too far. So it was for Rickman.
President Reagan’s South Africa policy figured prominently in the film. Against the backdrop of Allen’s service to the Reagan Administration (which concluded Allen’s long service in the White House), viewers are left with the impression that Reagan’s policy of so-called “constructive engagement” with South Africa during Apartheid’s final years springs, not from a desire to stem the spread of Communism on the African Continent, but rather from racism. As pointed out by four historians who wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post and who have also written extensively about Reagan (with twelve books about the former president between them) the producers “Reagan-as-racist” motif is belied by several events in the former president’s personal history.
In their op-ed, the historians point out that as a Eureka College football player, Reagan offered housing to two of his black teammates when the team was on the road in Dixon, Ill., and he spoke openly during his tenure as president of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1950s about the need for better representation of blacks in the entertainment industry.1 As president of the United States, in the same speech in which he called the then-Soviet Union an “evil empire,” Reagan also decried American groups which advocated racism and bigotry. 2
The op-ed also points out that the implied racism the filmmakers impute to Reagan also is belied by the Reagan family’s genuinely warm personal relationship with Allen. While the film depicts Gaines/Allen as being in an uncomfortable position as an alleged “token black guest” (my term) at a state dinner hosted by the Reagans who shortly thereafter resigns from his White House position in protest, in reality, there was mutual fondness between the Reagans and Allen: Allen told a member of his church how nice the Reagans were to him, and Nancy Reagan penned a personal note to Allen thanking him for his service upon his retirement. 3 And in yet another op-ed critiquing the film, the former president’s son, Michael, asserts that while his father was governor of California, the elder Reagan “appointed more blacks to positions of power than any of his predecessors — combined.” 4
There was no need for the film’s producers to dilute the impact of what otherwise might have been a powerful story by (in addition to other problems) displaying their political bias on the screen for all to see. But I guess expecting more is simply asking too much of almost everyone in “Hollow-Weird.”
- Steven F. Hayward, Paul Kengor, Craig Shirley, and Kiron K. Skinner (August 29, 2013), “What ‘The Butler’ gets wrong about Ronald Reagan and race,” The Washington Post, accessed on line at http://www.articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-08-29/opinions/41572797_1_dutch-reagan-butler-s-wife-lee-daniels on September 4, 2013.
- Michael Reagan (August 27, 2013), “The Butler from Another Planet,” Newsmax, accessed on line at http://www.newsmax.com/Reagan/Butler-Reagan-Oprah-Allen/2013/08/22/id/521814 on September 4, 2013.