This isn’t your average summer movie crowd.
It’s not just that they are largely African-American, skin in all the shades of buttermilk, caramel and creamless coffee that we call “black.” It’s not just that they are largely old, with raincloud hair and been-there eyes, some leaning on canes for support.
No, the thing you really notice is that they come with grandkids trailing behind them as a kite string does a kite, young people born of the digital age who’ve been told they will spend this afternoon watching a movie with Nana and Pop-Pop. What’s more, it will be a movie in which no one pines for a hunky vampire or spouts quips while shooting bad guys.
No, they have come to see “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” the fictionalized story of a White House servant whose tenure stretches from Eisenhower to Reagan. Watching them take their seats, you get the sense that, while these grandparents may have come for Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker, what they have really come for, what they have brought their grandchildren to see, is The Truth. As in The Truth of How Things Were, and how that shades and shapes How Things Are.
That Truth has had a hard time of it in this country. It lives in books, yes, but given that so many of us regard reading as punishment and chore, that’s like saying it lives on Mars. Nor has Hollywood ever had much interest in telling that Truth and on the rare occasions it does, it pretties it up with so many Disneyesque evasions, dulls its hard edges with so much buttery compromise, that it hardly looks like itself.
This absence of The Truth has filled the ether with lies, cowardly, face-saving fabrications that ignore How Things Were and allow some of us to pretend How Things Are sprang fully formed from the indolence of black mothers, the wantonness of black daughters, the fecklessness of black fathers, the thuggery of black sons, the blameless reactions of lawmakers, judges, employers, cops — and neighborhood watchmen.
So what makes “The Butler” remarkable and necessary is simply this: It goes where we are seldom willing to go, shows what we are seldom willing to see, says what we are seldom willing to hear.
Black men hang from a tree like dead leaves. And that is The Truth.
A black man must watch his wife led away by a white man to be raped, and there is nothing he can do about this act of psychological castration except endure it. And that is The Truth.
The butler sets out china and silverware for a glamorous state dinner, as, elsewhere, young men and women are being sprayed with ketchup and spittle, punched and kicked and called “nigger” for trying to buy a meal at a department store lunch counter. And that is The Truth.
America, someone says, turns a blind eye to what we do to our own people, yet has the nerve to look out on the rest of the world and judge. And that, too, is The Truth.
We are guilty of ignorance in this country. Worse, ignorance did not just happen. It was chosen as an alternative to dealing with what we did and do, acknowledging the crimes that made us great. We ought not say those things, a woman once said because doing so is not “polite.”
But when what happened to you is not allowed to be acknowledged, it invalidates you. It makes you as invisible as a butler standing in an Oval Office waiting to serve while other men debate your fate.
So the most significant thing about this movie is not its performances or its story, but the simple audacity of its Truth. This Truth is what the old ones have brought the young ones to see, what they need them to understand. How Things Are springs from How Things Were. You must know this, children, and respect it.
And use it to shape How Things Will Someday Be.