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Fictional History in 'Butler' Belittles Civil Rights Progress

Image: Fictional History in 'Butler' Belittles Civil Rights Progress From left, director Lee Daniels, Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker at the Los Angeles premiere of "The Butler" after party on Aug. 12.

By Andrea Billups   |   Wednesday, 21 Aug 2013 09:38 AM

A legal scholar spoke out forcefully on Tuesday against the racial narrative in the movie "The Butler," saying its fictionalization of history is harmful and belittles "the progress that the civil rights movement has made."

"The Butler's negative re-imagination comes at a real social cost," writes Richard Epstein, the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at New York University, in a journal article published by Stanford's Hoover Institution. "Watching the movie, the viewer comes away with thinking that the civil rights movement has largely failed. But the actual record is more upbeat."

Epstein, who is an expert on constitutional law and intellectual property, calls the film "full of hype."

His comments add to the mounting criticism of director Lee Daniels' film, based on the life of butler Eugene Allen, who worked at the White House from 1952 to 1986, serving eight presidents before his retirement.

Historians and associates of President Ronald Reagan said the film's portrayal of the president and the first lady as racially insensitive was historically inaccurate and military veterans are angered by the decision to have liberal Jane Fonda offer an unflattering portrayal of Nancy Reagan.

Former Attorney General Edwin Meese III told Newsmax on Monday that the portrayal of the Reagans as racially insensitive in "The Butler" is not accurate, saying the true Ronald Reagan "treated everyone extremely well, including people who were in a position of assisting him in one way or another."

Epstein criticized Daniels' entire portrayal of America's racial past and the sensationalizing of Allen's story, whose early life was largely fictionalized in the movie.

"Why is Lee Daniels not content to tell the real story? The obvious answer is that his version makes for a better movie," Epstein writes. "Another explanation is that his tale is more down-beat so that it can belittle some of the progress that the civil rights movement has made over this time."

Daniels, in an interview with Piers Morgan on CNN Monday, again cast America as racially troubled, saying that "people are angry" that Obama is president and "they're showing their true colors."

Jane Fonda, whose portrayal of Nancy Reagan has sparked protests from veterans who begrudge her anti-Vietnam War actions, also made the media rounds following the movie's premiere last week, telling E! News that Mrs. Reagan had reached out to her through a friend and said that she hopes to see the film herself.

Fonda had earlier stoked criticism after attending a promotional event for the movie last month, wearing a shirt emblazoned with "Hanoi Jane," and earlier said that veterans who were critical of her role as Nancy Reagan "should get a life."

Navy veteran Larry Reyes, who founded "Boycott Hanoi Jane Playing Nancy Reagan" told Fox, "When I heard she was going to play such a well-liked and highly respected president's wife, it got to me. They knew by picking Jane for the part they were going to stir up some stuff. I'm not a conservative or a liberal, I'm an American. And that was a slap in the face."

Most of the recent criticism has focused on the historical inaccuracy of the film's portrayal of the Reagans as being racially insensitive.

Will Allen, writing for National Review Online, says "in the film's most dishonest invention, Cecil resigns as head butler after he learns of Ronald Reagan's decision to support the apartheid (but also anti-Communist) government of South Africa."

And Grove City College Professor Paul Kengor, a Reagan biographer, called the movie "ideologically driven fiction" and "Hollywood malpractice."

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