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.