Or so it seems, if you take mainstream Hollywood's view. I thought about that while "Lee Daniels' The Butler" dominated the domestic box office this week, beating all competition.
It's a comprehensive, heartfelt, well-constructed look at America's civil rights history, set mostly in the 1960s. Meanwhile, "Fruitvale Station" played to much smaller audiences in a much more limited release. That film depicts the last day of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man fatally shot in the back by a white police officer in San Francisco five years ago. (The films have something in common: Forest Whitaker plays the title role in the big one and was a producer on the little one.)
This seems to be a pattern: We embrace movies set in the past, maybe even before most of us lived, but stories set in our own time make us uncomfortable. "The Help," "42," "Red Tails" and even "Django Unchained" get national attention; movies about the way we live today get relegated to one screen at the multiplex, if nothing more marketable can be found.
That wasn't always true. While America wrestled with racial issues in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hollywood writers and directors based big films on that controversy. From 1958 through 1967, six such movies -- all with contemporary settings -- earned Academy Award nominations for best picture. There have been just six more racially themed nominees in the last 45 years, and only two of them ("Crash" and "District 9") are set in the era when they were made.
So what happened? Are we tired of talking about a problem that has existed for more than 300 years in this country? Do we think this issue is happily settled forever? Or do we believe the racial divide is here to stay -- and maybe can never be bridged -- so there's no point in thinking about it?
I see a connection here with war movies. Hollywood busily made stories about World War II during and after that conflict, because virtually all Americans agreed Nazis were terrible and Hitler had to go. That's why "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" could still be hits 40 years after the fact. But Vietnam divided us, and recent wars have left us queasy with indecision. So we don't see many mainstream pictures about Iraq or Afghanistan, unless they have the "We killed Osama!" vibe of "Zero Dark Thirty."
Nobody but a fool or a sadist now thinks racial segregation was a great idea and Jim Crow laws were appropriate legislation. We can all cheer for Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat, for African-American kids walking proudly into once-forbidden public schools, for brave students sitting-in at lunch counters in the 1960s. But that's the last time the vast majority of Americans knew what had to be done to improve race relations.
Things have gotten more confusing, even ugly, since then. So we retreat in movie theaters to times that are simpler, easier to define, more soothing to troubled psyches. That's a natural reaction. But it means a lot of things are left unsaid, at least in Hollywood.