Hollywood's version of Harper Lee's brilliant novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" turns 50 this year, offering President Obama a rare opportunity. For once, he can venture near the touchy topics of race and justice without risking too much of a political backlash.
That's the unspoken irony in the nation's first biracial president's showing of the Oscar-winning movie at the White House last week. His praise for Lee's 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel reminds me of how Abraham Lincoln is said to have greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the anti-slavery best-seller "Uncle Tom's Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly" in 1862: "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war."
I attribute the iconic endurance of both books to their depiction of a narrative that haunts our collective American memory. It is a basic narrative of brave, moral, everyday heroes trying to bring fairness to an unjust social order. That narrative culminates in "Mockingbird" with a trial in a small Southern town in the 1930s. Ten-year-old Scout watches from the "colored balcony" as her lawyer father, Atticus Finch, tries courageously but in vain to defend before an all-white and male jury a black man who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman.
I admire Lee's work as a masterpiece of subversion. She subverts an unjust social order by exposing its contradictions through the eyes of a child. Children rarely accept contradictions without asking questions.
Show, don't tell, young writers are advised. Lee shows us that social order and leaves it to us to pass judgment.
As much as Stowe's narrative stoked the passions that led to the Civil War, Lee's book and the movie, which she praised for its faithful translation to the screen, helped build support in the early 1960s for racial justice and the civil rights movement.
But the years since have disrupted the civil rights era's clean narrative of good-versus-evil with harsh complexities of real life.
The new narrative speaks to inequities and injustices that are more fundamental than racial inequality. It also speaks to an old concern that people freed from one system of injustice must be particularly careful to avoid repeating those abuses against others.
Which brings us to the current arguments surrounding the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. He was shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer. Martin's death might be no more than a local story were it not for the racial angle. Martin was black, Zimmerman is the son of a white father and Hispanic mother.
After weeks of rallies and media chatter, many wonder whether Zimmerman, if arrested, can get a fair trial. But the pursuit of fairness is why we have a legal system. Unfortunately, after weeks of inaction by local police and prosecutors, Martin's family turned to the court of public opinion. It was, as "The Daily Show's" "senior black correspondent" Larry Wilmore put it, "the only court that would hear his case."
As I watch the Trayvon Martin story unfold, I am reminded of Harper Lee's memorable message recalled by Scout: "One time Atticus said you never really knew a man until you stood in his shoes and walked around in them." That's a message worth remembering as we search through the facts in pursuit of truth.