Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which is slated to finish number one at the box office, grossing some $25 million over the weekend, is expected to finish behind other recent films about America’s racial past, including 42 and The Help. The involvement of Oprah Winfrey, who has been widely praised for her performance, was key to the success of the film, with a Fangando survey showing that 72% of those attending were doing so thanks in large part to Oprah’s involvement. The huge star power of the vehicle certainly didn’t hurt either; Nikki Finke of Deadline Hollywood points out, “Forest Whitaker, Terrence Howard, Alan Rickman, and Cuba Gooding Jr. helped overcome the uneven script that – depending on your POV – is dumbed-down or condescending, historically important or filled with historical inaccuracies…the stunt casting of Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan has caused considerable Red State outrage on social media.”
There is no question that the film itself is full of historical inaccuracies. The Butler has virtually nothing in common with its source material, the life of White House butler Gene Allen, except for the fact that the main character of the film and Allen were both black butlers in the White House. The film’s title character, Cecil Gaines, sees his father murdered and his mother raped by a white landowner; that never happened to Allen. The movie’s title character has two children, one who goes to the Vietnam War, the other who becomes a Civil Rights pioneer; Allen actually had only one son. Allen’s wife was by all accounts lovely; Gaines’ wife, played by Oprah, is an alcoholic who has an affair. Allen had warm relations with all the presidents with whom he served, and left the White House in 1980 with a hug from Ronald Reagan; Cecil Gaines, leaves the White House in rage over Reagan’s stance on South African apartheid. The film depicts Eisenhower as a colorless milquetoast, largely ignores southern Democrats’ support for Jim Crow during the 1960s and paints Reagan as slightly senile.
The general attitude of the film seems to be that President Obama’s election brought to fruition the great dream of civil rights, a popularly held belief in both Hollywood and the media. Yet the stars of the film have been quite open about suggesting that America is still a place filled with deep racial injustice. Oprah has been particularly egregious, from fantasizing racial incidents in Switzerland to talking up the Trayvon Martin case as a racial equivalent to Emmitt Till to stating that just because you don’t use the n-word or harbor ill will against blacks doesn’t mean you’re not a racist. That’s unfortunate, because The Butler could be a good introductory teaching tool to America’s racial history. Instead, that tool has been weaponized by a left bound and determined to paint Oprah’s racial narrative as the narrative of the film, and more broadly, the narrative of America’s racial progress or lack thereof.
Ben Shapiro is Editor-At-Large of Breitbart News and author of the New York Times bestseller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences America” (Threshold Editions, January 8, 2013).