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'The Butler' is based on true story, but it takes a few liberties

Saturday, September 7, 2013 - 12:01 am

The thing about movies is they rarely match the book or the real history behind whatever they are based upon.

“Lee Daniels' The Butler” is based on the true story of Eugene Allen, an African American who worked as a White House butler under eight presidents. After seeing the movie last week about a butler named Cecil Gaines and comparing what I saw to Allen's real-life story, there were some key differences. One was that Gaines had two sons in the film; the younger was killed as a soldier in Vietnam while the older became the catalyst for the screenplay.

This son, Louis, traced the course of the civil rights movement during his father's years in the White House. He was a Freedom Rider, a member of Martin Luther King Jr.'s entourage when he was assassinated and then a Blank Panther, later to become a Congressman.

But this son was fictional. Allen had only one son, who did fight in Vietnam but survived.

Also, I came away from the theater questioning the depiction of President Ronald Reagan. On one occasion, Reagan is being strongly urged by a congresswoman to support sanctions against the apartheid South African regime. While Gaines is serving tea, Reagan tells the congresswoman he will veto any such sanctions. Period. And there is no reason offered for his apparent stubborn support of the regime.

In an op-ed column in the Washington Post on Aug. 29, Reagan historians Steven F. Hayward, Paul Kengor, Craig Shirley and Kiron K. Skinner, wrote, “We are troubled 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.”

In the column, “What 'The Butler' gets wrong about Ronald Reagan and race,” the authors state: “Reagan saw sanctions as harmful to the poorest South Africans: millions of blacks living in dire poverty. He also feared that the apartheid regime could be replaced by a Marxist/totalitarian one allied with the Soviet Union and Cuba and that communism would spread throughout the continent.”

Gaines subsequently resigns as Reagan's butler and joins his long-estranged son in protest of the apartheid South African government, winding up in jail with his son briefly in a scene of reconciliation.

Then the movie ends with Gaines deeply moved by the election of the first black president of the United States, a made-to-order conclusion to a life story that included the travesties of racism from Gaines' childhood on a cotton plantation through fearing for his activist son's life during the violence of the civil rights movement.

The real butler, Allen, did, indeed rejoice at Obama's election. But he also greatly respected Reagan and, the historians declare, did not quit his job because of the president's refusal to support sanctions against South Africa.