The Toughest Scene I Wrote: The Butler’s Danny Strong on Tackling Ronald Reagan

In this series, Vulture has been speaking to the screenwriters behind 2013’s most acclaimed movies about the scenes they found most difficult to crack. What pivotal sequences underwent the biggest transformations on their way from script to screen? Today, Danny Strong discusses the challenge of incorporating Ronald Reagan into Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which is winding down its father-son story of gracious White House butler Cecil (Forest Whitaker) and his fiery activist son (David Oyelowo) just as Reagan is introduced.

The toughest scene I wrote wasn’t a scene so much as a section. Each presidential section details how the president dealt with civil rights and it’s based around a civil rights event, and then through that event, we see how Cecil’s son fights in the event and how Cecil grows or changes from the event. 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 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.

Toughest Scene: The Butler’s Reagan Section