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Column: What the Butler Saw, and What Supreme Court Justices Did Not

You can know something intellectually but not emotionally and, therefore, not know it at all.

That’s what I realized after viewing Lee Daniels’ The Butler. I’ve read Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the civil-rights era and watched old news clips of the burning of the church in Birmingham, Alabama. But seeing on film how brutally blacks were treated — as second-, if not third-class citizens — is to feel the humiliation and pain. That’s 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. I’ll buy the popcorn.

The justices need to focus on some of the movie’s 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 we’re so beyond discrimination that we no longer need the rules to ensure that states (mostly Southern ones) don’t put into effect latter-day versions of the literacy test.

We see President Lyndon Johnson (on the toilet, in a gratuitous stab at authenticity) making it essential for Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act on top of the Civil Rights Act. Whites were doing everything they could to deny blacks access to the basic tools of democracy — to go to the polls without being harassed by intimidating and hostile clerks. Literacy tests and poll taxes had replaced Bull Connor’s snarling dogs and fire hose.

Like the justices — and the butler of the title — we’d 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 — less blatantly racist than literacy tests but almost as pernicious — were introduced in 31 states. They are put forth as remedies, only no problem exists: The incidence of actual voter fraud hovers near zero. Kansas, where new rules are particularly harsh, has had more documented cases of UFO sightings than of voter fraud.

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. He serves white people, but it’s the president and his family that he’s waiting on, not a brutal landowner. And he’s attired in formal wear, not overalls, and delivers coffee on a silver tray. He sees and hears much, but loyally tells nothing, which mightily irritates his loving but boozing wife played by Oprah Winfrey (played so well, in fact, that you forget her talk-show-host persona).

If Cecil/Whitaker is the heart of the movie, Louis, his eldest son, is its soul. He is stirred by the injustice of attending an inferior school with no white kids, 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 by the Ku Klux Klan and Southern sheriffs with the shame his father feels as his son sits in jail instead of the classroom he worked so hard to get him into.

No parent, least of all this proud butler, can bear looking small in the eyes of his or her child. One cost of racism (Cecil is turned down twice when he asks to be paid as much as the white staff) is that Cecil must hide the wounds inflicted by the outside world from his son, who is just as determined to open them.

At dinner one night, the truth breaks through as Louis, who brought home his radicalized girlfriend, can no longer protect his father’s feelings. The senior Gaines coos over the success of actor Sidney Poitier. The junior Gaines puts down Poitier and his father as Uncle Toms who are only tolerated by the white man because they are servile.

To prove how far we haven’t come, Texas Republicans pushed a law through the Legislature 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, including student IDs and those issued by public-assistance agencies. It reduces early voting and eliminates same-day voter registration, both of which have been favored by the state’s black voters. It repeals a mandate for high school voter-registration drives.

Now, like the butler asking for equal pay, you have to prove those laws are discriminatory rather than the state having to show they are not before implementing them.

In the movie, Cecil throws out his son after the confrontation at dinner. They don’t 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.

If the justices don’t see the light, perhaps the movie industry will. Hollywood is generally unwilling to risk bankrolling serious movies told from a black perspective. The Butler came in at No. 1 at the box office over the weekend, kicking the tush of the higher-budget Kick-Ass 2.

I’m not suggesting that the Supreme Court should be influenced by box-office returns, only that the justices see for themselves how virulent the oppression was 50 years ago and why we still need rules to redress it. Here’s to having the justices see Lee Daniels’ The Butler 2, the sequel, a few years from now. Let’s hope the damage they wrought by ignoring the lessons of the original isn’t irreparable.

Margaret Carlson is a columnist for Bloomberg Views.