Lee Daniels' The Butler is both a reminder of how far America has come in the past 60 or 70 years to achieve racial equality and how far it has yet to go.
The film, off to a strong start at the box office, tells the story of Cecil Gaines, a fictional butler (based loosely on a real one) who serves seven presidents. Its narrative takes viewers through the turbulent arc of Jim Crow, desegregation, the civil rights movement and the black power movement in the United States, and, finally, to the edge of apartheid's dissolution in South Africa.
It tells the story of a man who goes from witnessing his father's brutal murder as a child at the hands of a white plantation overseer to the White House, where over the years he asks more than once in his seemingly deferential way for equal pay and opportunity for black staff working there.
The timing of the film -- on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, in the year the Supreme Court began dismantling the Voting Rights Act, in the month a judge ruled New York City's stop-and-frisk police tactics discriminate against minorities, and in the month a jury cleared Robert Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin -- couldn't be more pitch perfect.
Inequality and injustice are still central to the fiber of American life -- particularly its economic reality.
Just last week, The Washington Post reported data showing scant, if any, economic progress for black Americans during an era much celebrated for the election of our first African-American president. It noted that:
Fifty years ago, the unemployment rate was 5 percent for whites and 10.9 percent for blacks, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Today, it is 6.6 percent for whites and 12.6 percent for blacks. Over the past 30 years, the average white family has gone from having five times as much wealth as the average black family to 6 1/2 times, according to the Urban Institute.
There are reasons for this -- most notably perhaps the collapse of the home-ownership market in 2007 and 2008 -- far beyond Barack Obama's reach. Whether and how he might have done more in the face of an intransigent and, increasingly, radically right-wing opposition party, I'll leave to others.
Still, it's clear that in August 2013, it remains an uphill climb to be born black, and particularly black and male, in the United States. Most white Americans I've met either bristle or squirm at the idea of white privilege, at the notion that today as in the past they -- make that we -- approach life with certain ingrained assumptions and privileges from birth just because of the color of our skin. Though few of my white acquaintances would say so directly, I believe plenty wish black Americans would just "get over it."
But until the underpinnings -- the root causes -- of economic and social injustice are confronted in more honest and open dialogue, issues of race will continue to dog this country and slow its progress.
I hope those watching ceremonies marking the original March on Washington at home will give pause to consider not just what came before, but also what still needs to be done ahead. Because I fear if good people are satisfied with where we are today, the momentum of those who would like to pull race relations backwards will only accelerate.
We need instead to be moving forward, to be echoing Cecil Gaines call for equal pay, and equal opportunity.
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