WASHINGTON – You can know something intellectually but not emotionally and, therefore, not know it at all.
Thats what I realized after viewing Lee Daniels The Butler. Seeing how brutally blacks were treated – as second-, if not third-class citizens – is to feel the humiliation and pain. Thats why I wish Chief Justice John Roberts and four of his Supreme Court colleagues would see it, too. Maybe it will help them understand how wrong they got it when they recently decided that we are so far past Jim Crow that we can dispense with a central provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The justices need to focus on some of the movies vivid, and most stomach-turning, scenes. They will see respectable white citizens of my parents generation spitting at, pouring hot coffee on and beating up young blacks – and in particular the son of the butler of the title – as they try to do the simple things in life: have a Coke at a lunch counter, drink at a water fountain, go to school. Try to tell the children of those civil-rights pioneers that were so beyond discrimination that we no longer need the rules to ensure that states (mostly Southern ones) dont put into effect latter-day versions of the literacy test.
Like the justices – and the butler of the title – wed like to think things are getting so much better that we can just hope for the best. Not so. In 2013 alone, more than 80 measures to restrict voting rights were introduced in 31 states. They are put forth as remedies, only no problem exists: The incidence of actual voter fraud hovers near zero.
The movie is based on the life of Eugene Allen, a White House butler who served eight presidents. Some liberties are taken, but the spine of the story is true. Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker) is the son of a sharecropper who rises to a respectable job in the White House.
If Cecil is the heart of the movie, Louis, his eldest son, is its soul. He is stirred by the injustice of attending an inferior school, going to an all-black college and watching his father perform a menial job on what he sees as a plantation of a different kind. He joins the nonviolent Freedom Riders. Much of the rest of the movie juxtaposes his brutal treatment with the shame his father feels as his son sits in jail.
To prove how far we havent come, Texas Republicans pushed a law that allows a concealed-carry gun permit – but not a student ID – to be used as voter identification. A law in North Carolina imposes a special voter-ID requirement while invalidating several forms of government- or public-employee ID. It reduces early voting and eliminates same-day voter registration, both of which have been favored by the states black voters. It repeals a mandate for high school voter-registration drives.
Now, you have to prove those laws are discriminatory rather than the state having to show they are not.
In the movie, Cecil and his son dont reconcile until the fairy tale, yet realistic, ending when Cecil, now retired, returns to the White House to see the first black president living there.
Im not suggesting the Supreme Court be influenced by box-office returns, only that the justices see how virulent the oppression was 50 years ago and why we still need rules to redress it. Heres to having the justices see Lee Daniels The Butler 2, a few years from now. Lets hope the damage they wrought by ignoring the lessons of the original isnt irreparable.