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Wonderful movie.  I predict Forest Whitaker will win the Oscar for best actor for his performance in this film, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he brought Oprah along with him.

If you haven’t heard, The Butler is the new biographical drama, directed by Lee Daniels and starring Whitaker and Winfrey, about a black man who served as a butler in the White House through eight presidencies, Jim Crow and the end of segregation.  It is one of only a very few adult dramas out this year amid a field of comic book offerings, so I was bound to see it if only because it didn’t have anyone flying around in a cape or an iron suit or delivering a relentless barrage of raunchy, low-IQ, sit-com humor.  (I am still getting over The Heat.)  There was a time when grownups might have a beer or a cup of coffee after the movies and enjoy meaningful discussion about films like The Graduate, The Godfather, The Sting, Cabaret, American Graffiti and The Exorcist.  It’s hard to imagine that Lawrence of Arabia, The Longest Day, The Music Man, Mutiny on the Bounty and To Kill a Mockingbird all came out in a single year—1962.

Before you get too excited, The Butler is not like any of these movies.  It doesn’t have a compelling story arc.  The story is, well, the story of us.  After Whitaker escapes a brutal childhood in Jim Crow Georgia, we watch him and his family deal with the very familiar upheavals of the civil rights era.  Most of the action takes place in the years between Brown v. Board of Education and the end of the Vietnam War.  We know how that story ends, and we know the hard lessons learned from those years.  What’s compelling about The Butler is how Whitaker and Winfrey bring that era down to size in the life of a man who worked for four decades with a foot in two very different worlds.

I was at first wary of another movie intending to take me to school about racial injustice.   We all know that racial discrimination exists and persists as a barrier to advancement in the lives of many black Americans, but the primary drivers of black poverty today are teen pregnancy, a 72 percent rate of out-of-wedlock births, and a soaring high-school dropout rate.  Leave the bigots to stew in their hatred but remove these factors, and the risk that a black child will remain in poverty drops to a statistical nil.  So it might seem that looking back at an era of widespread, systemic, legally-sanctioned and violent discrimination is taking our eyes off the road—an unhelpful, self-indulgent distraction from the problems at hand.  Until you see it on the screen.

The reenactment of the violence endured by the Freedom Riders is jarring.  The realistic depiction of the ugly, simmering racial hatred unmasked by a sit-in at the Woolworth counter is difficult to watch.  I found myself thinking, “I lived in this America.”  This was not that long ago.  I know those people.  This is not ancient history.  We as a nation really were still that ignorant and intolerant more than a hundred years after the end of the Civil War, and some of us remain so.  Then, as the story moves into the much more recent era in which our children were born and we are congratulating ourselves for our triumph over this shameful history, we see Whitaker’s character pleading—again—that black servants on the White House staff be paid the same as whites.  It is not 1954 or 1964.  He is standing in the White House of Ronald Reagan, and it is then you remember that we still have so very far to go.