Screenwriter of 'The Butler' Still Insisting Reagan Despised 'Every Civil Rights Initiative'

The culture website Vulture.com is revisiting “2013's most acclaimed movies” and the screenwriters who wrote them. For some reason, they singled out “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and how scripter Danny Strong had to make up scenes that showed Reagan to be cruelly indifferent to the plight of South African blacks under apartheid.

Strong and Daniels ignored the actual historical record as liberal historian Douglas Brinkley included that in his book The Reagan Diaries, page 142. Reagan wrote: “Pres. Kaunda of Zambia arrived. A good meeting & lunch. I think he feels good about the trip. We made clear we detest Apartheid but believe we can do better with S. Africa by persuasion.”

Instead, Strong convinced himself that Reagan attacked “every civil rights initiative put into place.” Forget events like Reagan creating the federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. in 1983. See Reagan's remarks on that occasion here.

When we got to Reagan, it was very difficult because Reagan's record on civil rights was so bad, in that he basically dismantled or attacked every civil rights initiative put into place.

It was really challenging, because it was the end of the movie and I just didn't know how to address that in a way that was dramatically satisfying for our lead character. How is he going to respond to this? It's kind of easy to figure out how Louis is going to respond to Reagan's race policy: He can just protest it. But I had no idea how I was going to deal with [the butler] Cecil's response to Reagan's extremely negative civil rights record.

The real breakthrough came from an interview with someone who had worked at the White House and told me two things: One, how amazing Reagan was with the staff and how much the staff loved him personally. That made the sequence more dynamic, that we could dramatize how Reagan one-on-one with people who were African-American was amazing and wonderful, as opposed to his policies, which were very harmful.

And then the person I was interviewing said she wished she would have resigned after the South African veto [which would have sanctioned the country's pro-Apartheid government]. I said, "Oh my gosh, that's perfect. That's it. That's what Cecil's going to do: He's going to ultimately leave the White House, and that's going to be the fulfillment of his arc, that he's finally learning the lesson that his son is trying to teach him over the course of the whole movie." That was a real breakthrough.

Earlier: Reagan Historians Decry Ahistorical Caricature of Racist Reagan in 'The Butler' Movie

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis