Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Rage Behind Gratitude

To Kill a Mockingbird has been getting  a lot of press recently, with the coming release of author Harper Lee's original ms, but something about the movie (which I remember far better than the book), once one of my favorites, has rankled me in recent years. For a long time, though, I couldn't figure out what it was. 
Now I have.

First, I want to say that I will always love the character of Scout, a rare movie depiction of a real human girl.
The scene where she's forced to wear a dress to school is cringe-making---though at the time the movie was made (1962, the year after I was born), no one would even think to suggest that forcing a kid to wear a dress was an injustice. 
Her father, Atticus Finch, otherwise the movie's hero for justice, doesn't take her case to the school board or anything---everyone just accepts that's the way it is: girls have to wear dresses. 

But that's not my problem with the movie.

The problem is I can't stand to watch a group of powerless people express gratitude
seemingly the entire black population of Scout's town stands up to honor her white lawyer father for daring to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, against a rape charge brought by a white family led by the father, Bob Ewell. 

(An aside: How would the movie be different if the white family were classy, like Atticus, instead of being the pig-ignorant white trash they are depicted as?)

Not to take away from Atticus's bravery.
Atticus doesn't have to do his job, or do it well, after all, and he takes a huge risk in choosing to defend Tom Robinson.
He is an ally who puts himself and his family on the line. His children almost pay for his bravery with their lives, when Bob Ewell attacks them with a knife.

Scout and her brother almost lose their lives, but the innocent Robinson actually does lose his:
at the end of the movie, after an all-white jury finds Robinson guilty of a rape Atticus has proved he physically could not have committed, we are told that the police have shot and killed Robinson while he was trying to escape.

Atticus expresses dismay that Robinson ran, when Atticus had told him they would appeal the case.

Tom Robinson ran?

Like Steve Biko died of a hunger strike

And, so what if he did run? He was unarmed, like Michael Slager.

I, and I suspect most white fans of this movie (how many black fans does it have?) don't remember it as a tragedy, though, right? 
To be honest, it's really a feel-good movie if we identify as Atticus, or Scout.

And I always have identified with Atticus, the way some identify with the Kevin Costner character in Dances with Wolves;
it's so gratifying to see oneself as the Rare White One Who Gets It and earns the respect of nice, grateful people. That's the whole point of these movies: the white audience sees ourselves in Atticus and his family, not the Robinsons, and certainly not Bob Ewell (. . . and, therefore, not as racist; never mind that Atticus is "Mr. Finch" to his black housekeeper, while she is "Calpurnia" to him and to his young children).

But, no. I'm not Atticus, and I know it.
Here are the number of risks I've taken to right racial injustice: 

But that's still not my primary problem with the movie. 

My primary problem is that it finally occurred to me to wonder,
what about those people who are obliged to Atticus: 
how does it feel to be one of them when someone finally sees and speaks out against the injustice and fear society forces you to live with EVERY SINGLE DAY of your life?

Grateful, sure.

But also... ?

Well, I'm not Atticus, and I'm not African American, but I have been the recipient of charity, and I hate feeling thankful for charity when I also feel powerless.

In fact, I don't even feel thankful in the long run; 
I feel resentful, sometimes to the point of rage, for being powerless and--on top of it--now in the debt of someone with more power who chooses to give me some.

It's an ugly thing to feel. Oppression breeds ugly feelings.
And I'm not really powerless––I mean, sometimes I'm one-down or am treated with condescension, but I'm not powerless in the inescapable legal, social way of Tom Robinson and his community.

To Kill a Mockingbird has come to feel emotionally dishonest to me.  There's got to be a better way to honor white allies in the struggle for civil rights, if that's the story being told.

We see the gratitude. 

But where's the rage?


End Note

Where's the rage?

Perhaps in forthcoming documentary about musician Nina Simone, What Happened, Miss Simone , someone who was not grateful to white fans:
Her music was by, about and for black people. She would scan the crowd for black faces and tell them, “I’m singing only to you. I don’t care about the others.” White fans, she said, were “accidental and incidental”.
She could not ignore the fact “that I was a black-skinned woman in a country where you could be killed because of that one fact.”
--"Nina Simone: 'Are you ready to burn buildings?'"

Here she is performing "Mississippi Goddamn", the song she wrote in response to four white supremacists bombing the 16th Street Baptist Church and killing four girls in 1963:

After the bombing, the New York Times reported
"Johnny Robinson, a 16-year-old Negro, was shot in the back and killed by a policeman with a shotgun this afternoon. Officers said the victim was among a group that had hurled stones at white youths driving through the area in cars flying Confederate battle flags."

Confederate flags.   Huh.

I have taken To Kill a Mockingbird off my list of favorite movies.

Having struggled mightily to figure this out and write about it, I see I could have saved myself the work and just linked to the excellent post on TKaM on the blog stuff white people like

warmly embrace racist novels.


Zhoen said...

Maybe I saw it first when I was a bit older, but I remember not really liking Atticus. Yes, he did a hard job well in a difficult situation, but he was part of the problem, he failed them. I liked the movie not because it made me feel good, but because it felt so true to the sensibilities of the time. That the open minded whites were still steeped in prejudices, even if they'd stepped back from bigotry. The black community thanked him for trying, but they also knew not to rely on him. Of course Robinson ran, and of course Atticus didn't get why.

And Scout was as bossed around as any little girl, trapped in a ham and left vulnerable.

Fresca said...

Wow, Zhoen--that's interesting you saw it that way right off the bat!
Do you remember where you saw in the film that "the black community thanked him for trying, but they also knew not to rely on him"?

I don't remember that being shown or implied.

Maybe lots of other people saw the movie differently than I did, but I have only ever heard hero-worship expressed for Atticus.

Poor Scout, stuck in a ham...
That scene terrified me when I was little. Hm, still does.

Zhoen said...

Just the impression that their gratitude was pro-forma, the real emotion was the frustration. Maybe I'm reading back into it, maybe I just never trusted fathers, maybe I had the sense that truth held no sway in this world. I didn't actively dislike the Atticus character, but the idea of hero-worship, especially of any dad, was completely out of the question for me.

NPR story about the Nina Simone documentary,

Michael Leddy said...

I have much more vivid memories of the movie than of the book. What I like about the movie — in a very limited way — is its depiction of things that lie beyond a child’s real understanding. It reminds me of mysterious episodes from childhood, not really grasping what’s going on. And there’s Elmer Bernstein’s music. But it all seems designed to absolve white folks, at least the “good” ones (those who aren’t trash), to whom black people are supposed to be grateful (Jim and Huck again). I also don’t like the way the movie invites us to identify with those who come out okay (and not, say, with Tom Robinson and his family). I dislike Schindler’s List (the movie) for the same reason.

I cringe when TKaM gets chosen as a “one school, one book” book.

Fresca said...

ZHOEN: Ah, I see--it was your interpretation, which makes sense.

MICHAEL: Well, for heaven's sake, I'd actually felt hesitant, even afraid, to condemn such a beloved book, but seems I'm the last one to the party!
[Yet... why do people choose it for stuff like “one school, one book”? For that matter, how can anyone praise Gone With the Wind?!?! (except for that red dress...))

I walked out of Dances with Wolves and avoided Schindler's List (I hate Spielberg's schlock)--but Mockingbird does have that great kid stuff you mention, and I can't find any fault in Mary Badham's Scout.

bink said...

Powerful piece. It's been so long since I've seen TKaM that I hardly remember anything about it except an impression of Scout. Never actually read it...now, probably won't.

On the plus side, some Confederate flags are finally coming down. The governor of Alabama ordered theirs down today, and other states are at least talking about it. Crazy, honestly! Those flags should have been gone 150 years ago.

Fresca said...

BINK: I'd say Mockingbird is worth watching/reading, it's just not the simple story I'd thought it was.

HOORAY for the governor of Alabama! Sometimes people do the right thing (even if a little late).
I read that those flags went up in the '90s. The 1990s.