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Human rights: Long, painful journey

AP Photo
Robin Williams portrays President Dwight Eisenhower and Forest Whitaker stars as Cecil Gaines in this scene from "Lee Daniels' The Butler," based on a story by former Gazette copy editor Wil Haygood.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The next Academy Award for Best Motion Picture may go to a story unearthed by a former Charleston Gazette copy editor.

"The Butler" is emotionally powerful, not because it tells of a passive, submissive White House servant, but because it makes everyone relive the century-long, stormy, tormented, agonizing, desperate, human rights struggle that lifted American blacks to the semblance of equality they hold today.

The movie starts in racist Dixie in the 1920s, when black field workers lived almost like slaves in shacks on a cotton plantation. A cruel farm owner pulls a black woman into a shed for sex -- and when her husband starts to object, the owner shoots him dead. Their little boy is horrified.

Out of pity, the farm owner's mother trains the boy as a "house Negro" servant with a better life than sweaty "field Negroes." As a teen, he moves to a city -- walking past the hanging bodies of lynched black men -- and becomes a waiter. He goes north to an elegant Washington hotel, where he learns to stay silent as hard-drinking white politicians crudely sneer at blacks. His composure is observed by a White House aide, who recruits him to become a butler to President Harry Truman.

Over the years, he watches as President Eisenhower must use federal force to help integrate Arkansas schools -- and President Kennedy must use federal force to stop white riots when the University of Mississippi was integrated. He sees the White House coping with endless racial murders and lynchings in the Deep South, and Democratic President Johnson handing the South to the Republican Party by pushing equality laws.

The fictionalized movie focuses on the butler's oldest son, who defies his "Uncle Tom" father and becomes a civil rights crusader in restaurant sit-ins, Freedom Rider bus trips, militant marches and finally the Black Panther movement. But the son retreats from violence and is reunited with his father, who joins him in a protest that lands them both in jail. The movie ends with jubilation at the election of America's first black president.

Ex-Gazette copy editor Wil Haygood, now at The Washington Post, wrote a landmark 2008 newspaper report on the real White House butler who became the basis for the film.

The movie reaped $25 million on its opening weekend, and is drawing nationwide reviews calling it "groundbreaking" and "crudely powerful." Critic Ann Hornaday called it "the first major feature film to capture the full sweep and scope of the civil rights movement."

The New York Times said it's "a brilliantly truthful film on a subject that is usually shrouded in wishful thinking, mythmongering and outright denial."

Older Americans who lived through the historic battle for equality will remember nearly every scene of "The Butler" -- and younger Americans should see it to learn the reality of the heroic struggle.


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