Mocking the Mockingbird

Social conservatives say they hate Hollywood, but Hollywood isn’t a smug liberal conspiracy to undermine all that is good and right in America. The major studios simply want to make money, lots of it, so they give America what America wants – smug feel-good movies. Sure, there’s sex and violence, but the good guy always wins, and he’s almost always the white guy, the white guy who saves the day, or saves the world. America’s power structure is vindicated. The minority characters are foils – they’re good but hapless folks who need a bit of white help. This should make every Tea Party shouter, appalled that we have a black socialist president from Kenya, who wants his or her country back, right now, quite happy with Hollywood. Who saves the day? The white guy!

It’s the other side who should be upset with Hollywood. A few years ago, when the hot movie at the time featured Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, Phenderson Djeli Clark had a few things to say about this:

I knew white saviors when I saw them, even before they’d been properly named. My parents were the ones who awakened my criticisms. They’d taken me to see Cry Freedom and left grumbling that a film ostensibly about Steven Biko and apartheid South Africa seemed oddly focused on a white journalist. They left equally annoyed at Mississippi Burning, a movie about the Civil Rights movement where the FBI – notorious “negrophobe” J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI no less – were the heroes, saving wide-eyed and frightened colored folk from the local corrupt constabulary. In fact, it seemed much of my youth was filled with white saviors – whether it was Kevin Costner “going native” in Dances With Wolves, Dennis Quaid saving Zammis and the other Dracs from galactic slavers in Enemy Mine or Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones swashbuckling about the globe and using a whip (a white man with a friggin’ whip!) to strike fear and awe into the darker hordes of the world.

Clark now knows even the sub-genres of these movies:

Civil Rights White Savior films – Mississippi Burning, The Medgar Evers Story and The Help

Save-the-Natives White Saviors – Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Avatar

Urban White Teacher Saviors – Dangerous Minds, Finding Forrester, The Principal, Freedom Writers

Great White Saviors of Slaves, who have graced every major Hollywood film on American slavery – Glory, Amistad, Lincoln, and Lincoln with vampires…

What? People do tend to forget Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – for good reason – but it more than made back its production costs. Abraham Lincoln not only frees the slaves, he saves the world from vampires. What more could you want? But Clark overlooks the most obvious of these Hollywood white savior films, To Kill a Mockingbird:

The film, widely considered to be one of the greatest ever made, earned an overwhelmingly positive response from critics, and was a box office success as well, earning more than 10 times its budget. The film won three Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Gregory Peck, and was nominated for eight, including Best Picture.

In 1995 the film was listed in the National Film Registry. It also ranks twenty-fifth on the American Film Institute’s 10th anniversary list of the greatest American movies of all time. In 2003, the AFI [American Film Institute] named Atticus Finch the greatest movie hero of the 20th century.

Gregory Peck was always Atticus Finch after that film – the good white man who nobly defended the innocent black man accused of raping a white woman. Yes, he lost the case, but he did the right thing, and everyone has read Harper Lee’s novel on which the film was based:

To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel by Harper Lee published in 1960. It was immediately successful, winning the Pulitzer Prize, and has become a classic of modern American literature. … The novel is renowned for its warmth and humor, despite dealing with the serious issues of rape and racial inequality. The narrator’s father, Atticus Finch, has served as a moral hero for many readers and as a model of integrity for lawyers. One critic explains the novel’s impact by writing, “In the twentieth century, To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism.”

How do you top that? Harper Lee never wrote another word. She became a recluse – until now – “At age 88, nearly blind and deaf after a 2007 stroke, and after a lifetime of maintaining that she would never publish another novel, Lee released a statement through her attorney confirming publication of her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, written before To Kill a Mockingbird.”

That’s the new novel – Go Set a Watchman – from Isaiah 21:6: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me – Go, set a watchman; let him declare what he seeth.”

This is not a sequel. This is the novel Harper Lee originally wrote, before her publisher told her to go back and make it a white savior tale. She knew that was bullshit. This is setting the record straight.

The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani explains what we have here:

We remember Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s 1960 classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as that novel’s moral conscience: kind, wise, honorable, an avatar of integrity who used his gifts as a lawyer to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in a small Alabama town filled with prejudice and hatred in the 1930s. As indelibly played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 movie, he was the perfect man – the ideal father and a principled idealist, an enlightened, almost saintly believer in justice and fairness. In real life, people named their children after Atticus. People went to law school and became lawyers because of Atticus.

Shockingly, in Ms. Lee’s long-awaited novel, “Go Set a Watchman” (due out Tuesday), Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” Or asks his daughter: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”

In “Mockingbird,” a book once described by Oprah Winfrey as “our national novel,” Atticus praised American courts as “the great levelers,” dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” In “Watchman,” set in the 1950s in the era of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, he denounces the Supreme Court, says he wants his home state “to be left alone to keep house without advice from the NAACP” and describes NAACP-paid lawyers as “standing around like buzzards.”

In “Mockingbird,” Atticus was a role model for his children, Scout and Jem – their North Star, their hero – the most potent moral force in their lives. In “Watchman,” he becomes the source of grievous pain and disillusionment for the 26-year-old Scout (or Jean Louise, as she’s now known).

This is the novel she wrote in the first place:

Though “Watchman” is being published for the first time now, it was essentially an early version of “Mockingbird.” According to news accounts, “Watchman” was submitted to publishers in the summer of 1957; after her editor asked for a rewrite focusing on Scout’s girlhood two decades earlier, Ms. Lee spent some two years reworking the story, which became “Mockingbird.”

No one knew about this, or expected this:

Students of writing will find “Watchman” fascinating for these reasons: How did a lumpy tale about a young woman’s grief over her discovery of her father’s bigoted views evolve into a classic coming-of-age story about two children and their devoted widower father? How did a distressing narrative filled with characters spouting hate speech (from the casually patronizing to the disgustingly grotesque – and presumably meant to capture the extreme prejudice that could exist in small towns in the Deep South in the 1950s) mutate into a redemptive novel associated with the civil rights movement, hailed, in the words of the former civil rights activist and congressman Andrew Young, for giving us “a sense of emerging humanism and decency”?

How did a story about the discovery of evil views in a revered parent turn into a universal parable about the loss of innocence – both the inevitable loss of innocence that children experience in becoming aware of the complexities of grown-up life and a cruel world’s destruction of innocence (symbolized by the mockingbird and represented by Tom Robinson and the reclusive outsider Boo Radley)?

The depiction of Atticus in “Watchman” makes for disturbing reading, and for “Mockingbird” fans, it’s especially disorienting. Scout is shocked to find, during her trip home, that her beloved father, who taught her everything she knows about fairness and compassion, has been affiliating with raving anti-integration, anti-black crazies, and the reader shares her horror and confusion. How could the saintly Atticus – described early in the book in much the same terms as he is in “Mockingbird” – suddenly emerge as a bigot?

Those are all good questions and the answer to those questions is easy – give smug white America what it wants:

The advice Ms. Lee received from her first editor was shrewd: to move the story back 20 years to Scout’s childhood, expanding what are flashbacks in “Watchman,” used to underscore the disillusionment Jean Louise feels with the present-day Atticus, now 72. (“I’ll never believe a word you say to me again. I despise you and everything you stand for.”) Scout’s disillusionment in “Watchman” oddly parallels that of Jem in “Mockingbird,” after Atticus fails to get Tom Robinson acquitted, and Jem realizes that justice does not always prevail.

It’s a simple change in emphasis:

One of the emotional through-lines in both “Mockingbird” and “Watchman” is a plea for empathy – as Atticus puts it in “Mockingbird” to Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” The difference is that “Mockingbird” suggested that we should have compassion for outsiders like Boo and Tom Robinson, while “Watchman” asks us to have understanding for a bigot named Atticus.

Perhaps so, but David Ulin, the Los Angeles Times book critic, offers this:

I’d read “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a ninth-grader in the spring of 1976, and like many readers, I found it memorable both for its acute portrait of childhood and for the tension of its courtroom drama. I was also struck by the novel’s saga of racial injustice, which resonated deeply.

At that time, I was already interested in politics and history – especially American politics and history – and although I’d been assigned to read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I was also reading, concurrently, William Bradford Huie’s “Three Lives for Mississippi,” John Howard Griffin’s “Black Like Me” and Gary Thomas Howe’s “My Undercover Years With the Ku Klux Klan.” These books described a more recent period in Southern history, that of the 1950s and 1960s, yet when it came to attitude, very little, it appeared, had changed since the 1930s.

When Scout’s father, Atticus, declares, “They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it – seems that only children weep,” I thought, and still do, that the world he was describing was as much the one I lived in as that which Lee describes.

All these decades later, this is equally – or more – the case. If “To Kill a Mockingbird” suggests (a bit simplistically, I would argue today) that a better day is coming, history pursues a far more complicated pace. Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, the nine people murdered last month at Charleston, S.C.’s, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church: These are only the most recent, and most visible, casualties of a hatred that refuses to be reconciled.

It’s not just Harper Lee finally setting the record straight. We all know better now, and know that the first book was a myth of sorts:

Perhaps the problem is that we know too much, that we are no longer satisfied by such simple, homespun truths. Perhaps it’s that I’ve grown too old to read this novel, that Scout’s coming to awareness seems too slow to me.

Regardless, all those books I read with “To Kill a Mockingbird” – I had assumed by now their stories would be ancient history. That they aren’t, and that in a very real sense Lee’s novel isn’t either, says less to me about the lasting power of language than the intractability of prejudice and how it perseveres.

So what else is new? Forget that white-savior crap. Atticus Finch was a nasty old man. Read the other new book that was just published.

That would be Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me – and Slate’s Jack Hamilton, an assistant professor of American studies and media studies at the University of Virginia, explains this one:

Between the World and Me unfolds as a six-chapter letter from Coates to his 15-year-old son Samori, prompted by his son’s stunned and heartbroken reaction to last November’s announcement that no charges would be brought against Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. The framing device is an explicit homage to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, a similarly compact volume published in 1963 that begins with a prefatory essay titled “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.”

Baldwin’s “Letter” runs just a few pages and is a work of ferocious urgency, words of anguished wisdom imparted from an elder (“I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times,” he writes in the opening line). Between the World and Me, in contrast, is not so much a work of counsel as a lovingly, painstakingly crafted inheritance, a reflection on fatherhood that often feels like a spiritual sequel to Coates’ first book, The Beautiful Struggle, a memoir of his childhood in Baltimore that focused heavily on his own father. If The Beautiful Struggle was Coates explaining his father to himself, Between the World and Me is Coates explaining himself to his son, and, in doing so, explaining, as best he can, what it means to be black in America.

Coates knows what that means. Don’t expect a savior, white or otherwise:

Between the World and Me is a love letter written in a moral emergency, one that Coates exposes with the precision of an autopsy and the force of an exorcism. Taken as a whole the book is Coates’ attempt to sever America’s ongoing romance with its own unexamined platitudes of innocence and equality, a romance that, in the writer’s telling “persists by warring with the known world.” In Between the World and Me this collective delusion is known as “The Dream.” The Dream, writes Coates, “is perfect houses with nice lawns. … The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.” The Dream is wrought from a legacy of white supremacy so entrenched it nearly conceals itself, and Coates’ book is a call to awakening. As such, it joins a tradition that stretches back at least as far as Frederick Douglass and runs up through Barack Obama’s Charleston eulogy just two weeks ago. The richness of this tradition is a formidable thing, and its duration and continuing urgency do not speak well of this country.

The Dream is wrought from a legacy of white supremacy so entrenched it nearly conceals itself? Harper Lee just asked us to awaken from the same dream. Coates is simply more direct about it:

Coates is frequently lauded as one of America’s most important writers on the subject of race today, but this in fact undersells him: Coates is one of America’s most important writers on the subject of America today. This distinction might sound glib but is worth making, not least of all because Coates repeatedly informs us that he isn’t much interested in “race” as a subject of reflection in itself. “Race is the child of racism, not the father,” he writes – while race is a fiction of power, racism is power itself, and very real.

It’s also worth making this distinction because for many white Americans the word race simply translates to not us, an invitation to defensive disavowal and aggrievement. Consider the amount of times that Barack Obama has been accused of “injecting race into the conversation” or “playing the race card” simply by making reference to his own body, as he did in the aftermath of the killing of Trayvon Martin. Or the inability of politicians and talk show hosts to describe the actions of Dylann Roof for what they were, a terrorist act committed on the imagined behalf of people who look like him. Or the way a statement like “black lives matter” becomes shouted over with “all lives matter,” a mass of people feeling insufficiently loved by people they fear. To paraphrase an essay Coates wrote for Slate in 2008, many white Americans now treat “racism” like it’s a racial slur directed at them.

There’s a lot of that going around, in spite of all the Hollywood white-savior movies, and Hamilton suggests this to his fellow smug white folks:

White Americans may need to read this book more urgently and carefully than anyone, and their own sons and daughters need to read it as well. This is not to say this is a book about white people, but rather that it is a terrible mistake for anyone to assume that this is just a book about nonwhite people. In the broadest terms Between the World and Me is about the cautious, tortured, but finally optimistic belief that something beyond these categories persists. Implicit in this book’s existence is a conviction that people are fundamentally reachable, perhaps not all of them but enough, that recognition and empathy are within grasp, that words and language are capable of changing people, even if – especially if – those words are not ones people prefer to hear.

Yes, Hamilton likes this book:

I found myself thinking a lot about teaching and teachers while reading Between the World and Me, and not just because I’m one myself, at a university founded by one of America’s most famous slaveholders. I first read The Fire Next Time as a junior in high school; it was pushed on me by an eccentric but thrilling English teacher who told me that it was the greatest essay ever written. I still remember him vividly, because he was the kind of teacher who made me read books like that and who talked about writing in that way. He died a number of years ago, but I wish I could give Coates’ book to him. Instead I’ll give it to my own students and, if the time comes, to my own children as well.

That’s a bit effusive. Coates is a bit more down-to-earth in this interview:

Speaking of books, any thoughts on Atticus Finch?

“No. I have never read To Kill a Mockingbird.”


“I haven’t.”

Wow. I think that will be the line from this interview people are interested in.

“Why is that? People are always surprised by that.”

Hey, he had been waiting for Harper Lee to publish the book she had written in the first place, not the white-savior book her publisher needed to impress smug Americans, so sure that some white guy would save the day, or save the world. She finally did. He’ll probably read this one.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to Mocking the Mockingbird

  1. Rick says:

    For some reason, all this reminds me of Spike Lee, blowing his stack in 1990, when “Driving Miss Daisy” won Best Picture, and his “Do The Right Thing” wasn’t even nominated, saying something like he guessed the judges liked “Daisy” more because it conformed to the white fantasy that blacks and whites actually get along, or something. That “Daisy” came to me recommended as worth seeing, and that I was told “Right Thing” was still rife with his trademark amateurism, led me to react to Lee by thinking, “So his black movie was passed over for somebody else’s? Poor baby!”

    And I now I guess joining “To Kill a Mockingbird” on Phenderson Djeli Clark’s “White-Savior Hollywood Flick List” are these:

    * Civil Rights White Savior films – Mississippi Burning, The Medgar Evers Story and The Help …

    * Save-the-Natives White Saviors – Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Avatar…

    * Urban White Teacher Saviors – Dangerous Minds, Finding Forrester, The Principal, Freedom Writers …

    * Great White Saviors of Slaves, who have graced every major Hollywood film on American slavery – Glory, Amistad, Lincoln, and Lincoln with vampires…

    Okay, yeah … but no. The main problem I have with this theory might best be put this way:

    First of all, most of these films, at least the ones I’ve actually seen, are not really about white people saving black people. They may look that way to you if you’re black, but that doesn’t speak to the intention of the filmmakers, it only speaks to how the movies are being perceived by you.

    Take “Mockingbird”. If this were meant to be about a white man saving a black man, it missed its mark, considering the fact that, despite all his efforts, (a) Atticus Finch loses his case, and (b) his black client is shot to death.

    The lesson of the movie is not so much about saving black people as it is about doing the right thing inside a society that insists that doing the obviously wrong thing is the right thing. The story paints the picture of a righteous man in the process of bravely trying to banish evil from his own town. And yes, the movie is a “feel good” movie, but what it makes you feel good about is that there are at least a few brave people trying to do good in the world, even if most people give in to peer pressure and say, “well, that’s just the way it is, and you can’t change it.”

    In fact, white people mostly don’t come off well at all in this story, and if the point is that the white guy is a hero for saving a black man, that overlooks the fact that all the villains in the movie are white people themselves. And, of course, there are also no evil blacks in the movie, either, which, it seems to me, should count for something, even if it’s beside the point.

    (A short sidebar: Yes, I like the “Mockingbird” movie, although I must admit I’ve never really understood the point it tries to make, which, firstly, is apparently that, although you shouldn’t shoot a mockingbird, it’s okay to shoot to death all those other birds, since they don’t bring joy to humans with their songs? Is the point here that there’s nothing wrong with mistreating useless people we think aren’t doing the world a lick of good?

    And secondly, there’s that ending that leaves us with the lesson that we needn’t bother arresting Boo Radley for strangling that guy to death, since he is a friend of ours, and whatever strangling-to-death he did was just to protect the kids. But doesn’t that overlook the fact that this is exactly how white people treat the law, especially when it pertains to crimes involving blacks? That is, we’ll arrest any black accused of committing a crime against a white, but then we’ll overlook any crime committed by a white against a black victim, especially if the white is a friend of ours who we know and trust?

    But never mind. Let’s pick this up from where we left off.)

    Same thing with “The Help”, when it comes to “Whites Saving Black People”. Yes, white people can always feel good about this white girl who gets the writing project going — especially because, like Atticus Finch, she somewhat courageously stood up to her own people. But the real brave ones in this film were all the black women who joined her in the writing, since the risk they faced came with so vastly more brutal consequences. So in fact, there’s way many more than one hero here.

    As for some of the other movies on that list?

    * Mississippi Burning – I don’t think I saw it, but yes, I hear it probably overplays the roll of the FBI during the Civil Rights era. Still, I think our history tends to underplay the involvement of brave white people in the movement, some of whom were also beaten and killed — as if we’re afraid that it would take away from the courageous actions of blacks fighting for themselves, as is allegedly found in the downplaying of LBJ’s roll in Civil Rights in the film “Selma”, another movie I didn’t see. For me, crediting both black and white heroes really makes a better story, in that the battle for Civil Rights was not one of white against black, but good against evil. I don’t know what Spike Lee may think of that argument, but I doubt he’d like it.

    * Urban White Teacher Saviors – “Dangerous Minds”, “Finding Forrester”, “The Principal”, “Freedom Writers”: Nope, never saw those, but I did see “Blackboard Jungle” and “To Sir With Love”, both of which featured Sydney Poitier. In “Blackboard”, he was indeed a black inner-city student who needed rescuing, but in “Sir”, he was the black teacher, saving inner-city youths. What does that do to the theory of white-saviors, I’m not sure, but I imagine it doesn’t help it.

    * Great White Saviors of Slaves: “Glory” wasn’t really a white hero in that the U.S. Army required that black soldiers serve under white officers, and once again, most the white people came off looking pretty evil. “Amistad” had white “hero” Matthew McConaughey fighting for the release of the captives, but I found the charm of this movie in the historical recognition that, while slavery was legal during that point in our history, we also were a nation of laws, some of which could be used to overrule slave owners. “Lincoln” (and Lincoln with vampires): Yes, everyone knows he wrote the emancipation proclamation, but this movie is not about saving black people, it’s the story of how Lincoln got things done as president, which probably changed some folks’ impression of the man. (And “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”? Never saw it, but I thought it was not so much about Lincoln saving black people as it about him killing vampires — who, in my opinion, mostly don’t exist.)

    And once again, if a story seems designed to make the good people of both these races feel better, at the same time serving up a much-needed reminder to those who forget that these sorts of things happened not so long ago in our own history, then that’s good. I certainly don’t think we need any movie that demonizes either race — not because I think certain races deserve to be demonized, but in fact, because neither race, as a people, really does deserve it.

    But my big question is, not where do the critics think these movies went wrong, but what story do they think movies should tell about race?

    The truth is, a better world is one in which human beings don’t tolerate the intolerable, and we should feel good about the heroes of any race that try to bring that world into being.


  2. Russell says:

    One of your best posts ever.

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