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Every year, middle and high schoolers around the country read To Kill a Mockingbird.
Harper Lee’s novel — which centers on a white woman’s rape accusation of a black man, Tom Robinson, and the family of the white lawyer who defends him — is firmly lodged in the canon of American literature. Gregory Peck famously played the lawyer, Atticus Finch, in the 1962 film adaptation of the novel.
And this year, the story came to Broadway, with a script by Aaron Sorkin and Jeff Daniels in the role of Atticus.
Sorkin updated the story, as The New York Times review of the play describes:
On the other hand, if Mr. Sorkin did not make major changes, the play would be both structurally and politically insupportable in 2018. The leisurely pace of Lee’s narrative wouldn’t work onstage, as the previously authorized adaptation proved in its dull fidelity. That’s because Lee took her time getting to the trial, which doesn’t even begin until halfway through the book. For 150 pages she immerses readers in the charming, perplexing, ominous daily life of Maycomb as seen and narrated by Atticus’s daughter, Scout.
The adaptation attempts to foreground the story’s two primary black characters: Calpurnia, the Finch’s housekeeper, and Tom Robinson.
But some critics argued that Sorkin did not go far enough in dismantling what they say is one of the clearest examples of the “white savior” trope.
Here’s Soraya Nadia McDonald, writing for The Undefeated:
This new version of Mockingbird perpetuates one of the most pernicious, seductive lies in the history of this country: That racism, and all that results from it, can be blamed on a few cartoonishly evil characters. I have a name for these characters and the lie they have come to represent. I call them TROTs: Those Racists Over There. TROTs are scapegoats for racism, and they are everywhere, but they seem to proliferate in films that get nominated for awards. There’s Daisy Werthan in Driving Miss Daisy, Hilly Holbrook in The Help, Dixon in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and every Southern white person who is mean to Don Shirley in Green Book.
In To Kill A Mockingbird, the TROT McDonald describes is Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller), the mouth-breathing bigot who rapes his daughter and falsely accuses a handicapped black man named Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe) of attacking her.
The TROT exists in a symbiotic relationship with another trope: the white savior, who relies on the TROT so that he or she may be defined as noble, principled and morally unblemished. (Or at least, not so blemished that whatever ails them can’t be remedied by the end of the story with the aid of a psychological helpmeet. In Mockingbird, whatever perspective Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels) may be lacking, his domestic, Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), dryly provides.)
Can and should the history of racial injustice be told through the perspectives and pens of white people?
What value does the classic story hold today?
We talk about all that and more.
Produced by Avery J.C. Kleinman.
- Aaron Sorkin Playwright, To Kill A Mockingbird
- Gbenga Akinnagbe Actor, Tom Robinson in Broadway's "To Kill A Mockingbird"; @GbengaAkinnagbe
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