Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day and the Men in Black

A Lesson in American Opportunity
Spoiler Alert! There are details about the movie below.

My wife, one of my daughters and I joined many others to make Men in Black III the number one movie this Memorial Day weekend. We enjoyed it; in our collective opinion, it was better than II but not as good as the original.

But there was a moment when the fun turned to unease. When the world seemed suddenly unnatural (for someone who deals with aliens all day), Agent J (Will Smith) went to the apartment of his partner, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). The door opened, however, to a Jewish family. (I could see a Mezuzah – a prayer rolled up in a small decorative case - affixed to the doorframe.) Overcome with a strange craving for chocolate milk (because of a change in the timeline of history), he took a cup from one of the children. The child then exclaimed something along the lines of, “Mommy the President drank my chocolate milk!”

I let out an audible laugh and then I heard a grandmotherly African American woman in the audience yell, “Racist!” There were other people that laughed, but I was among those closest to her. I couldn’t tell if her remark was directed at me or the screen. Either way, her reaction was the subject of discussion on the car ride home.

Our first thoughts were with the woman in the theater. We felt bad about her response to the movie scene – that she heard prejudice, that she was hurt. Why? Did she think that the line was akin to saying “black people all look alike”? We won’t ever know. Needless to say I wouldn’t have laughed if I thought it was a racist comment nor do I think Will Smith would have tolerated being the target of a slur. (And it’s hard to imagine the key people behind the movie – Steven Spielberg, Barry Sonnenfeld and Etan Cohen – would be so insensitive.)

Though we can’t deny the woman her feelings, we felt quite the opposite. Here’s a little child who sees an African American man and thinks “President.” How great is that? Not sports star, not janitor, not criminal. President. The three of us in the car reveled in this. Despite the sad and destructive political division in our country, we have nonetheless reached a major turning point. If there’s any stereotyping going on here, I’d take it this version.

It’s about time, of course, and there’s still further to go in erasing intolerance, but our country has come a long way. It’s a long way pioneered by civil rights activists and progressive politicians who wanted to see the realization of our founding vision. These principles have been upheld and defended by courageous civilians, and by our men and women in uniform. So, it’s fitting that on this Memorial Day we can again salute those in the military who have given their lives to protect our freedoms and the American ideal.

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