In August 2013, 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, 49 years after the Civil Rights Act and 48 years since the Voting Rights Act, equal justice and opportunity remain controversial topics in the US. This weekend, two real life dramas—the death of Trayvon Martin and the life of Eugene Allen brought racism into focus in Phoenix.
Eugene Allen was a butler for eight Presidents, and whose life is dramatized in the film Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which debuted August 16 in Phoenix. While there are the usual debates about what is true and what is not, the film does accurately and hauntingly portray the travails of Black Americans, from the Jim Crow South of the 1920’s and 30’s until the election of Barack Obama in 2008.
Lynchings, indiscriminate and senseless killings, intimidation and humiliation, and lack of equal justice for Black men here and abroad are detailed in the film, which will probably result in Oscar nominations for stars Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey (who revealed her own encounter with discrimination last week). Phoenicians recognized the talents of the young director—Lee Daniels— early, on when Daniels participated in the Arizona Black Film Showcase in Phoenix in 2009.
Ironically, on August 17, Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, and Benjamin Crump, the family’s lawyer, were the special guests at a panel discussion entitled Racial Profiling: Life to Death. Hundreds of Phoenicians came to hear about Fulton’s campaign to repeal legislation, like the state "Stand Your Ground" laws, and discriminatory practices that have led to the premature death of African-American males. The event was held at the Steele Indian School Park, a site of historic racism against Native Americans.
Abraham James, one of the few Black architects in Phoenix, who attended the event, said, “Incidents, like those that led to the deaths of Martin and Oscar Grant, who was killed in Oakland, demonstrate the continuing lack of respect for Black men in the U.S. This discussion showed us how far we still have to go.”
Daniels’ movie shows the great progress that had been made in America during the life of one Black man. Racial profiling, legislation threatening voting rights, disproportionate interment and unemployment, increasing lack of access to education and white-collar jobs, and Black males being expected to be subservient in the face of aggression from anyone professing to stand “their” ground, demonstrate, as James said, how far Phoenix and America still has to go.