Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird”, as adapted for the stage by Aaron Sorkin, and directed by Bartlett Sher, is skillfully presented, and very well acted, but ultimately feels less like a play about racism in 1930’s Alabama, than an elaborate example of liberal white privilege. After all it’s a Broadway production of an iconic story set in the place and time of American apartheid wherein the moral center is occupied by a brave, compassionate, generous and humble white man who does the right thing, even if it requires breaking the law. Not only is this version of Atticus Finch the opposite of a racist, he’s practically an action hero.
I am a 60 year old white American man of less rigorous virtue than the Broadway Atticus Finch, but I have been a member of a large black family for going on forty years. I have a black wife, two grown black children, dozens of cousins nephews and nieces, and at least as many friends of color as white ones. So, I know I’m white, but I’m a damn sight less white than I look, because I see the world fundamentally differently than all but a few white Americans.
And that’s why, for me, the opening night performance of To Kill a Mockingbird was not a play about American racism, rather it was a skillfully staged white liberal dream.
In the play it is Atticus Finch – expertly portrayed by Jeff Daniels – who sees, feels, and understands what is happening more deeply than anyone else, and who imparts his wisdom, and admits his flaws, with such profound honesty that the audience can actually see his precocious white children becoming better people. And at the end of the play… sure an innocent black man is convicted and then murdered, but lessons have been learned, and fatal justice has been carried out by good white men, on a particularly wicked, very very bad white man. Hallelujah.
But also, and perhaps more importantly.. meh.
The novel To Kill a Mockingbird is bravely written by Harper Lee, and historically significant. It made it harder for white America to remain as willfully ignorant as they had been, and it has been an enormously popular and socially acceptable way for generations of white Americans to learn hard truths about their country.
But, it is no longer important. Not even a little.
Right now the film ‘The Hate You Give’ is a much more important American story than To Kill a Mockingbird. Because The Hate You Give is about racism NOW. And racism now is as virulent and widespread as it was back in the 1930’s. It’s only barely less socially accepted, and slightly less legally protected. But, it’s just as violent, deadly, and infectious.
The audience my African American wife and I watched the play with last week was more diverse than most Broadway audiences, but not by a lot. It was still mainly white, wealthy and privileged. They seemed to love the production, and that is great. I hope it runs a long time, because at least it feels relevant, and given the story it tells, that’s about all one can hope for.
There’s another play on broadway, called American Son, that is also about the dilemma of racism, and it actually is relevant. It’s not a great play, but it’s a good, fiery, clear eyed, story about yet another mortal encounter between a young black man and law enforcement.
Some white members of the audience at the performance of American Son that we attended were visibly shaken by the way it ended, and most of them remained in their seats during the curtain call. As they were leaving there was genuine dismay on the faces of more than a few, and I suspect it lead to difficult and uncomfortable conversations afterwards. However I also suspect that some of them were upset at paying broadway prices to watch something so difficult to absorb, without being able to change the channel.
What it stirred up in me was the memory of seeing our son seated on the curb in handcuffs, across the street from our house, surrounded by heavily armed police. He had ‘fit a description’. Thankfully the cop’s mistake was soon corrected by the man who had been accosted, and our son was released.
We did get a look at the actual perp, and the only similarity between him and our son was two words, ‘Black male’.
So that’s a big hint as to why the Broadway production of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, no matter how deftly modernized, left some of us unmoved. It condemns righteously but without authority, because it portrays the past as if it’s past, and features a protagonist who I like to think Harper Lee herself would recognize, is not the moral beacon presented in this adaptation of her novel.
This is America, where racism is alive and killing because too many white people don’t want it to die, and the rest are desperate to believe that it’s either already dead, or not their problem.
Yeah it is.