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Atticus on trial

Atticus on trial

Aaron Sorkin’s stage play of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird updates a classic American text – and offers an alternative to Gregory Peck’s iconic performance

Warning: includes spoilers

It is, in novel and movie alike, a scene of unforgettable power. Atticus Finch, the white lawyer whose Black client, Tom Robinson, has just been wrongly convicted of rape, gathers his papers and prepares to leave the courtroom with as much dignity as he can muster. 

In the balcony, the Finch children, Jem and Scout – AKA Jean Louise – sit with the Black townsfolk who are, of course, not permitted downstairs, this being the Alabama of the 1930s. At this moment of abject defeat, they stand in honour of Atticus and of his integrity. One of them, Reverend Sykes says: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”

Pamela Nomvete as Calpurnia and Rafe Spall as Atticus Finch in rehearsal for the new West End production of To Kill a Mockingbird

This scene from To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of 1960 and the movie, starring Gregory Peck, that followed two years later – was always the moment that gave Aaron Sorkin goose bumps. But when the writer of A Few Good Men and creator of The West Wing and The Newsroom was invited to adapt Lee’s story for the stage, he knew that this particular scene would have to go. Its absence from the play, which opened on Broadway in 2018 and has at last reached London’s West End (now booking at the Gielgud Theatre), is both conspicuous and absolutely correct. 

True, for millions of Americans, To Kill a Mockingbird remains, in the words of Oprah Winfrey, “our national novel.” Published on the cusp of the era of Civil Rights activism, its story of ingrained bigotry and frustrated decency in the fictional southern town of Maycomb (a proxy for Monroeville, where Lee grew up) seemed, to a generation of liberals, to herald an era of reform and a campaign for racial justice that had history on its side. (On the author’s life and her novel, try Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields.)

Harper Lee, on the balcony at Monroeville courthouse

Yet – 62 years since the book’s publication – it would be idle to deny that its implicit promise of fundamental change, of the better angels of our nature taking flight (eventually), and of the end of brutal racial division has simply not been realised. Sorkin found himself adapting Lee’s novel in the age of Donald Trump, right-wing militias, the industrialised incarceration of people of colour, the killing of young Black men such as Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and the rise of Black Lives Matter. 

The cast of the new West End production

A year and a half after the play’s premiere at the Shubert Theatre in New York, George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis – prompting protests all over the world. As Sorkin puts it in an interview with Afua Hirsch in the London production’s programme notes, “those people on the balcony ought to be burning the courthouse down! They should be out on the street chanting, no justice, no peace. But they’re not. They’re docile.”

The late Toni Morrison criticised To Kill a Mockingbird as a “white saviour” narrative; while Ta-Nehisi Coates, the acclaimed author of Between the World and Me, has pointedly never read the novel (“Half the stuff that interested me, my white peers have not read”). 

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin

Accordingly, Sorkin grasped that he could not treat Lee’s book as a sacred text or a museum piece. To breathe fresh life into To Kill a Mockingbird, he had to remain true to the spirit of Lee’s story but reframe it in a way that was fit for our times and would speak to contemporary audiences.

The first and most basic step was to give agency and voice to the two main Black characters, Calpurnia (Pamela Nomvete), housekeeper to the Finch family, and to Tom Robinson (Jude Owusu), falsely accused of rape by Mayella Ewell (Poppy Lee Friar). 

Calpurnia, in particular, becomes the conscience of the play, taking Atticus to task after he has made his son apologise to a racist neighbour. “Jem was stickin’ up for you and maybe a little bit me and you made him say he was sorry,” says Calpurnia. To which Atticus replies: “I believe in being respectful.” Calpurnia: “No matter who you’re disrespecting by doin’ it.” 

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962

This is the heart of the matter. The main protagonist of Lee’s novel is Scout, and its principal theme is the often painful journey out of childhood, as innocence is gradually supplanted by experience. What is preserved of the former is the insistence – inherited from Scout’s grandfather – that one should not harm those who add to the balance of good in the world. (From chapter ten: “‘Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’ That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie [a friend of the family] about it. ‘Your father’s right,’ she said. ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy… but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”)

But the main protagonist of the play is not Scout – who, like all the children in the production, is played by an adult (Gwyneth Keyworth) – but Atticus himself. In his creation of staunchly decent, intellectual characters such as President Jed Bartlet, The Newsroom’s Will McAvoy and A Few Good Men’s Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, Sorkin has become, in effect if not by design, the laureate of white American liberalism. The gravitational pull of Gregory Peck’s version of Atticus – a looming figure carved out of virtuous marble, meticulously courteous, always inclined to see the good in people – must have been considerable.

Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy in Sorkin’s The Newsroom, 2012

It is to Sorkin’s credit that he has resisted this temptation and presented Atticus as a much more ambiguous, conflicted and fragile character than in the novel or the film. Superbly played by Rafe Spall, the widowed lawyer finds that his core values – that there is good in everyone, that the arc of history bends towards justice, that incrementalism is rewarded – are tested almost to destruction. 

One of the most famous lines from the novel is the assertion by Atticus that even Mr Cunningham, the leader of the lynch mob that comes for Tom Robinson, is “basically a good man… he just has his blind spots along with the rest of us.” As Sorkin has pointed out, this now sounds queasily close to President Trump’s insistence in 2017 that there were “very fine people on both sides” at Charlottesville. 

Clashes at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, 2017

Atticus is hardly a proto-Proud Boy. But Sorkin has shrewdly expanded the role of Bob Ewell (Patrick O’Kane), Mayella’s ultra-racist father (and abuser), who taunts the lawyer with his hatred of the liberal elite and with portents of violence to come that foreshadow the white nationalism of our own era. 

Lee herself, it should be noted, saw Atticus, based loosely on her father, the lawyer and state legislator, A.C. Lee, as a much more complex character than did her original readers. When Go Set a Watchman, the frankly mediocre “sequel” to her first book, finally appeared in 2015, less than a year before her death, the literary world was shocked to discover that the ageing Atticus had deep reserves of conservatism, opposed to federal intervention in the desegregation of the South, and especially the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on racial separation in schools, Brown v Board of Education (1954).

In fact, Sorkin does not refer to or foreshadow the second book – which, it could be argued, was no more than a first draft of the Maycomb saga, written, as it happens, before the novel that made Lee’s name; and was certainly not ready for publication without due health warnings. (For a full exploration of the twists and turns of this story, and its deeper meaning in American culture, try Joseph Crespino’s Atticus Finch: The Biography: Harper Lee, Her Father and the Making of an American Icon.)

A young Truman Capote

What he does, instead, is make full use of the playwright’s licence – one particular consequence of which is the joyous prominence on stage of Dill Harris (David Moorst). Based on Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote, Dill is now much more explicitly a version of Lee’s fellow writer-in-waiting: witty, camp and longing to make his way in the world, more than a little reminiscent of 13-year-old Joel Knox in Capote’s own Other Voices, Other Rooms. Lee famously helped Capote research In Cold Blood; Capote never properly forgave her for winning the Pulitzer and often claimed, with no evidence whatsoever, that he had ghost-written much of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Though Lee herself approved Sorkin to adapt her novel, her estate sued him over the adaptation that he delivered after her death. This was misguided, as the play both respects the book and reframes its story for a new generation. Had the lawsuit prevailed, a great opportunity to revive a classic novel would have been foolishly squandered.

Ed Harris as Atticus Finch, in Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird. on Broadway

For all the changes that Sorkin has made, the question posed by Lee – and spelt out by Scout in the final scene – remains the most basic challenge facing contemporary progressivism. Is it enough to keep trying to be decent? To act from commendable motives and thus to keep alive the spirit of hope? How does one persist in the face of apparently irreducible bigotry and atavism?

It is no accident, I think, that the play’s refrain evokes Maya Angelou’s great poem, Still I Rise. The bailiff’s call upon those in the courtroom to stand in honour of the judge reflects a respect for the justice system. But what if the institutions of the liberal order fail? Then people of decency will have to take a stand in protest, in activism, in ways which Atticus hoped so fervently would not be necessary. All rise, indeed.

Here are this week’s recommendations.


Watch

Rebel Dread (video on demand)

A documentary about the life and times of Don Letts is long overdue and William E. Badgley’s film about the acclaimed director, DJ, musician and commentator does not disappoint. In the Seventies – and ever since – no figure has so clearly and creatively incarnated the true multi-cultural nature of punk, which Letts himself describes as “the licence to be all you can be.” Growing up in the “Little Jamaica” of Brixton, he was steeped in dub, soul and reggae: but it was seeing The Who live that convinced him that he had to put music at the centre of his life. When the punk scene arose in west London and Soho, Letts’s professional and romantic partner was Jeannette Lee – later a member of Public Image Ltd – and he got to know, and filmed, all the key figures in the new demi-monde: John Lydon, Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon, Mick Jones and many others. Letts managed The Slits, accompanied Lydon to Jamaica after the Sex Pistols broke up to sign reggae acts for Richard Branson, and founded Big Audio Dynamite with Jones after the latter was fired from The Clash. He also became one of the first and most prolific directors of music videos, and now has a weekly show on BBC Radio 6. It is impossible to understand the cultural history of this country in the past forty years without reference to Letts, and Rebel Dread is a fine tribute to a creative force of nature and a great Briton.

Deep Water (Prime Video)

Twenty years since his last movie, Adrian Lyne returns to the director’s chair with this adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1957 thriller. Having designed a high-tech chip used in military drones, technologist Vic Van Allen (Ben Affleck) lives in comfortable semi-retirement with his wife Melinda (Ana de Armas) and their daughter in an affluent, tight-knit community of highly educated gossips. The Van Allens appear to have an open marriage, with Vic supposedly tolerating Melinda’s sexual adventures. In fact, he is a seething mess of murderous resentment. This is classic Lyne terrain, and – with its neon lighting, brooding expressions, and expensive evening gowns – powerfully recalls his earlier movies such as 9½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction, and Indecent Proposal. All of which might be a bit humdrum and retro, were it not for the superb performances of the two leads: Affleck is chilling as the cuckolded husband, often immobilised by humiliation and fury, and de Armas – most recently seen as a karate-kicking Cuban CIA agent in No Time to Die – is a revelation as Melinda: wretched, seductive and enraged by turns, and more than a match for Affleck as a screen presence.

..and thanks to Tortoise Social Media Executive, Tomini Babs, for this recommendation of Severance (Apple TV+) 

If there was a checklist of all the things that make a TV series perfect, this ticks every box, all the way down to its title sequence. From the mind of comedy veteran Ben Stiller, it’s based on an intriguing Black Mirror-esque premise where one’s work memories can be split from the memories of your personal life. Of course, chaos ensues. It makes for chilling viewing (with moments of comedy sprinkled throughout) and it’s all matched with a perfectly eerie score and stylistic cinematography. Adam Scott, another comedy old-timer, leads the cast of incredible performances. A dystopian, workplace thriller with metaphors that might sometimes hit a little too close to home if you work in an office. Every episode so far has left me desperately waiting for the next.” 


Read

Paradais – Fernanda Melchor (23 March, Fitzcarraldo Editions)

The brilliance and distinctiveness of Fernanda Melchor’s writing reflect the circuitous route by which she came to fiction. Trained as a journalist and obsessed by the true crime genre, the Mexican author was initially inspired by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood before shifting fully to the role of novelist. The first of her books to appear in English – Hurricane Season – was a stunning blow to the solar plexus, and Paradais is no less violent, dystopian and drenched in adrenaline. Set in a gated community in the Yucatán, the story is told from the resentful perspective of Polo, a gardener who hangs around with his fellow teenager Franco, one of the residents at the complex. They drink, smoke and watch porn, in an adolescent alliance of convenience that never really approaches friendship. Polo has only contempt for Franco’s obsessive sexual fantasies about his neighbour, Marián. “Who could have known,” he reflects in one of the novel’s most disturbing sentences, “he really meant what he said?” Set at the intersection of class, human depravity, and social hypocrisy, this is a work of unflinching darkness, and also one that establishes Melchor as, beyond doubt, one of the most important novelists at work today.

Free Speech: A Global History from Socrates to Social Media – Jacob Mchangama (Basic Books)

In the past three weeks, the spectacle of Russian state censorship of the reality of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has provided a bleakly powerful case study of Jacob Mchangama’s central thesis: that free speech is the core liberty from which all others flow and that we constrain it at our peril. Scholarly in its erudition but also immensely readable, his book shows that, throughout history, new communication technologies – from the printing press to social media – have inspired a panicked resort to censorship and self-censorship: invariably, with adverse consequences. He is especially good on the concept of “hate speech” and how often it has been abused to justify theocracy, repression or the restriction of legitimate and necessary debate. Free speech is not a fashionable value – often perceived in 2022 as an outright threat to modern notions of social justice. This superb book is a corrective to that intellectual and cultural wrong turn and, as such, deserves as wide a readership as possible.

The Red of My Blood: A Death and Life Story – Clover Stroud (Doubleday)

Like C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed, Clover Stroud writes compellingly of the frightening physiology of bereavement. In the first year after her sister, Nell, died of cancer aged 46, she found her sensory system was often a “fizzy mess of furious, colliding colours that was always on the point of giving me a migraine”. Like Joan Didion, she discovers that loss drives her to magical thinking. And Stroud deserves to be mentioned in the company of these two authors, for this is a truly remarkable addition to the literature of grief – a subject she has already addressed with great compassion and intelligence in a podcast series. In its candour and wisdom, The Red of My Blood is every bit as good as her previous memoirs – The Wild Other (2017) on the terrible riding accident that left her mother permanently brain-damaged, and My Wild and Sleepless Nights (2020) on the challenges of motherhood – which, as the readers of those two books will know, is really saying something.


Listen

Back in Black – Cypress Hill (18 March)

Hip hop is now a genre so deeply embedded in the American soul – not to mention global culture – that it has authentic elder statesmen as well as cohort after cohort of rising talent. West Coast legends Cypress Hill have been around since 1988 (when Ronald Reagan was still president), and, in addition to selling 20 million albums, are the first hip-hop group to have been honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Along the way, B-Real, Sen Dog, DJ Muggs and Eric Bobo have experimented freely – notably in Elephants on Acid (2018), which was heavily influenced by psychedelic rock. Their tenth album, however, marks a back-to-basics return to the spirit, tone and energy of their original gangster rap sound. Produced by Black Milk, Back in Black ranges from the 2Pac tribute ‘Come With Me’ to the mockery of US drug laws in ‘Open Ya Mind’ (‘Feds surrounding my place, the warrants all in my face. Damn, I thought this shit was legal; that’s just not the case…’). Old school brilliance from start to finish.

Brahms: String Sextets – Belcea Quartet, Tabea Zimmermann and Jean-Guihen Queyras

Best known for their superb recordings of Beethoven’s string quartets, the Belcea Quartet – founded at the Royal College of Music in 1994 – now turns its attention to Brahms’s two sextets, composed in 1860 and 1865. In spite of their profound beauty, these classics of the chamber music repertory are not performed as regularly as one might expect, for the simple reason that they require string quartets to recruit two extra performers. In this case, the Belcea’s core players – Corina Belcea (violin), Axel Schacher (violin), Krzysztof Chorzelski and Antoine Lederlin (cello) – have turned to Tabea Zimmermann (viola) and Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello) for world-class support. The results are nothing short of sublime.

WHO CARES? – Rex Orange County 

Scorned by some critics as the “Surrey soft boi”, Rex Orange County – AKA Alex O’Connor – has every right to point out that three of his tracks are close to half a billion streams each and that, in August, he’ll be performing to a crowd of 20,000 in Gunnersbury Park after a huge American tour. More significant than these numbers, perhaps, is the endorsement of Tyler, the Creator, who deployed Rex’s talents on Flower Boy five years ago, and now returns the favour on ‘OPEN A WINDOW’, the second track of the latter’s fourth album (“You stuck, then move, because I’m running, like sinus”). Recorded in less than a fortnight in Amsterdam, WHO CARES? takes as its starting-point the 23-year-old’s self-doubt and anxiety and builds to a position of tentative confidence. “You no longer owe the strangers” he sings on ‘Keep it Up’, a sentiment echoed in the title track’s assertion: “There’s really no point in living in fear”. It is easy to take for granted the beautiful orchestration of Rex’s music, and to confuse his user-friendly lyricism with platitudes. His heroes are the great singer-songwriters – Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Stevie Wonder, Hall & Oates – which, lest we forget, reflects a creative aspiration to be encouraged rather than mocked. 


Explore

Thanks to Sebastian Hervas-Jones, researcher and ThinkIn executive at Tortoise, for his write-up of a special Friends of Tortoise event earlier this week:

“This week Friends of Tortoise were treated to a private tour of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, exploring the queer music and theatre made by the house’s LGBTQ+ icons throughout its history.

It started in the main lobby discussing the ROH’s foundation, which was made possible by John Rich and John Gay, the creators of The Beggar’s Opera which popularised the opera house – and amusingly made John Rich gay and John Gay rich.

The tour progressed as the group climbed vast staircases, admired handsome busts and photographs, studied costumes and sat in the gallery during part of a rehearsal, all brought to life by Joe, the group’s guide, with brilliant stories of love, risk, characters, society and the shattering of social expectations through the performing arts.

At the tour’s conclusion, Friends of Tortoise were left feeling like keen insiders in a glorious and often amusing world of love, music and dance – which seems to have been at the forefront of a movement of softening norms around gender and expectations of love.”

Find out more about becoming a Friend of Tortoise – the ultimate supporter of our newsroom.

Tell us what you think

Does the right film always win Best Picture at the Oscars? Of course not. But we can fix that in a ThinkIn on 24 March, where we’ll be looking at the best films that have been overlooked in the past. This is your chance to see your favourite movies get the accolades they deserve. To help kickstart the conversation, we’re asking members to tell us which films they think should have won in previous years. Tell us about your favourite would-be Oscar winner

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
@MatthewdAncona

Photographs courtesy The Other Richard, Julieta Cervantes, Silver Screen Collection, Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock, Hulton Archive, Donald Uhrbrock, Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post, Leon Bennett/WireImage & Getty Images