JUNE 25, 2013
“If everything isn’t black and white, I say, ‘Why the hell not?'”
— John Wayne
“It is said that the camera cannot lie, but rarely do we allow it to do anything else, since the camera sees what you point it at: the camera sees what you want it to see.”
— James Baldwin
MY FATHER IS OFF in the projection booth running the projector, my mother is working the snack bar, and the other cars parked in the drive-in movie theater lot have the look of large sleeping animals, the whole of east Texas sprawled around. Beneath me, my older brother is asleep on the back seat of our old green Plymouth. And my twin brother, asleep in the left half of the window well, reaches out his hand and, dreaming, pats my shoulder, the two of us sleeping head to head, our feet pointing toward the darkness just outside the doors.
There’s the Milky Way overhead, the warm night humming with crickets, a cat in heat yowling off behind the drive-in fence, the faint whirring sound of the projector from the projector booth, the beam of white light momentarily illuminating moths swarming up in front of it. My mother is tucking a light blanket around me just before she goes off to attend to the customers — and naturally there’s a screen, a huge white screen that dwarfs the whole horizon.
Or it’s intermission, and looking through the back window, I can see my mother standing on top of the little cinder block bunker that houses the office, the supply room, the projector booth, and the snack bar. She’s climbed up the back of the building on an old wooden ladder, and with a microphone in her hand, she’s reading off ticket stubs for the raffle — tonight it’s a dozen Chop-O-Matics, the precursor to the Veg-O-Matic. Whenever somebody wins, they jump out of their cars, and wave their hands to the crowd, their shadows expanding and shrinking in time to the high beams flashing on and off while horns honk and people lean out of their windows to laugh and yell congratulations to their fellow townspeople, the lucky ones, the winners.
Or on really special nights, my parents manage to book one of the actors in the movie to make a guest appearance and sign autographs on black and white photos of themselves. And in one great coup, they even get Robert Preston to come and sing for half an hour up on the roof while everybody cheers and honks and flashes their lights.
Or it’s my twin brother’s and my birthday, and we’ve invited some of our friends to sit with us in lawn chairs right in front of the theater — the best seats on the grounds — and we all get to raid the snack bar, stuffing ourselves with hotdogs, guzzling Cokes, and wolfing down Snickers, while Bob Hope and Bing Crosby sing and dance and make us laugh.
But on most ordinary nights, I’m up in the window well hearing, through the metal grille of the speaker, the voice of a woman singing, “Zing went the strings of my heart!” Or on another night, the sound of a monstrous talking crab about to eat a mad scientist; or an old man thinking to himself as he sits in a boat trying to catch a marlin; or a goony guy who trips and falls a lot and makes odd noises with his nose and gets pies hurled in his face and who reminds me in a creepy, but also humorous way, of that kid who always smells like ketchup and onions and who breathes so loudly through his mouth and nose.
And of course there are bombs exploding, and rain and windstorms and sandstorms, and the more disturbing and thrilling sounds of the cavalry’s bugles and the Indians’ pounding drums, elemental with war and weather, and strangled, jeering voices of soldiers or a lynch mob, and huge orchestras cascading in my ears as I drift in my dreams, the music weaving all through them, the voices of the dead telling me things that I was afraid to know during the daytime: what that moaning and shouting is up in my parents’ bedroom; who the monster is on the stairs that keeps stalking me at night; why my mother takes away Mr. Potato Head when I get into a scuffle with one of my brothers over my pocket knife. And all through this orchestral swirl of voices and music and human and animal cries, I can feel a vibrating restlessness on the other side of sleep, just like a hair on the projector lens quivering across the bottom of the screen until my father swipes the lens clean.
My mother says that we were outsiders: when she and my father first took over the drive-in, they didn’t give a thought to where people should park. Whoever got there first got first choice. But after several months of this … well, I was going to write “policy” — but as my mother told me, “The closest we came to knowing anyone who was different than us was a Russian fellow — someone said he was Jewish, but I had no idea what that meant.” So anything like a “policy” would have been beyond them. They grew up in the most provincial of towns — a tiny Kansas town on the High Plains prairie that you can walk across in five minutes. The closest she’d ever come to people different from her town folk would have been the shackled German POWs cleaning up and keeping the grounds at the Kansas University campus in Lawrence, where they’d both gone to college. “We just didn’t know siccum,” she told me. But since she’d grown up dirt poor, in the worst years of the Dust Bowl, she wasn’t naïve about money.
After my father came home from fighting in China in World War II, they finished college, and traveled around in a trailer caravan for a year, my father stringing signal wire for the Southern Pacific Railroad while my mother kept house as best she could in the trailer. They’d been on the lookout for a business, and when they came across the drive-in in their travels, they decided to approach my father’s parents for the money. “We were excited,” my mother said, “because it would give us a chance to have a family on our own terms. Little did I know about the grind of keeping it going. Not to mention being beholden to your in-laws.” So my grandfather loaned them $40,000 to buy the drive-in — a lot of money in those days. “We had no thought,” she said, “but to pay back that money. And failure to pay — well, your dad wouldn’t think of it. And so we worked seven nights a week, winter and summer, for 10 years to pay it all off.”
So at first, the people who came to the drive-in for a quarter a person were just customers — black or white, if you paid, you were a customer.
During the first few months in that town, my parents were surprised to see Colored Only and White Only signs posted on the separate grocery stores and in various businesses. They were so ignorant of Jim Crow that my mother tried to convince Osie, a man whom they’d hired the week they arrived to help them clean up the grounds, to sit in the front seat with her when she picked him up and they drove to work together. But he was visibly disturbed by this, she said, looking deeply uncomfortable each time she joked with him to sit up front with her, and eventually she let him sit in the back seat: she had no idea of the danger he might be running, but she was sensitive to his desire not to share the front seat with a white woman.
And then one day, a soft-spoken, well meaning, well-dressed man came in to the drive-in during the daytime, a restaurant owner whose restaurant was, as my mother put it, “one step above a beanery.” He was an older member of the Kiwanis Club that my father had just joined as a fledgling newcomer to both commerce and the South. He found my mother and father doing the books in their little cinder block cubbyhole of an office in back of the snack bar and where they kept their supplies. My mother said he spoke to them in a friendly, courteous manner and told them that this wasn’t how things were done; that if they wanted to continue in business, they would have to restrict where “the coloreds,” as he called them, could park.
She says they were both thunderstruck, and didn’t know what to say, and so they said nothing, except for the required small-town pleasantries when the man left. And that night, as usual, they allowed anyone who bought a ticket to park wherever they liked. But this didn’t go unnoticed, because two days later, another, different man came in, with the same friendly, courteous manner, but with a kind of determination that they both understood meant business. Again, they were nonplussed — they didn’t know how to respond — and the man left without them saying much of anything.
But now they were worried about the business failing, about failing “you kids,” as my mother put it, about letting down my father’s parents. But they still persisted in allowing people to park where they liked. Then a third man came by about a week later, and they knew: again, he conducted himself in that quiet, courteous, butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth manner that my mother said she now recognized as the veneer of white hatred. At that moment, she felt building inside herself a bitter hatred of that man and toward the South — an anger that later fueled her rebellion against the Mormons, and the Mormon Church, as a high school English teacher in a small Mormon town in Utah — but that lay a decade in the future. The man said his piece, left, and then my mother and father had a decision to make.
My mother, who is now 88, said, “No doubt I talked a lot of high and mighty bombast while your dad just listened. And then we both looked at each other and knew — we’d have to come up with ‘a policy,’ as the man put it. And so, we decided to give our black customers rows 10 and 11.”
That night, when each one drove up, she said she had the most awful feeling: “I was utterly humiliated in humiliating them — but I asked them to park in the back of the theater. All this happened 60 years ago, but you can see how it’s stuck with me. But we did it because we had real poverty staring us in the face, and we couldn’t afford to fail — we had to pay your Grandpa Bob back. And of course we had you kids in mind.”
What was remarkable about those years, as she later told me, is that never once, except occasionally between themselves, did they ever have a discussion with anyone else, white or black, about racism. There was nothing but silence — and everybody knew exactly what that silence meant: “Except us,” she said. “And then we learned.”
When I asked how she felt about such everyday injustice, she said that it was horrible — separate bathrooms, separate water fountains — as if the blackness would rub off. She said she didn’t know what our black customers did when they needed to use the bathrooms, since they weren’t allowed to use ours. She told me that once a car of young black men from Dallas drove up to go to the movie, and when she told them they had to sit in rows 10 and 11, they looked at each other, then looked at her — nobody said anything, but the anger in their eyes stirred up anger — and fear — in her: “So we had a standoff,” she said, “them glaring at me, me glaring back. Nobody said a word. And then they finally got out of line and drove away.” I asked her how it made her feel, and she said, in a low voice, “Dirty.”
How did they stand it for all those years? She shrugged, and simply said: “Things were different back then: no TV, no way to talk about these things. It’s awful to say, but you got used to it, stopped thinking about it, stopped noticing it until there was something so awful or stupid that you couldn’t ignore it any longer. There was one town near us that had an iron arch over the entrance that read in big letters, The blackest earth, the whitest people.”
She told me how, after a few years, my God, she hated Texas. She was afraid we boys would grow up to be provincial yahoos, as racist as the rest of the town — and the kind of movies we showed, lots and lots of Westerns — well, that didn’t help, either. On a Saturday night, for example, we’d show a B Western for the first feature, and then a D Western for the second — it made her wonder what it would do to us to see such stuff. Of course, we loved it — for me and my two brothers, playing for hours outdoors in the little playground, sliding down the slide, digging in the sandbox, swinging on the swings, we lived hermetically sealed in our little world.
But for my parents, after the first couple of years, it must have felt purgatorial: never a vacation, always working to make money to pay off their debts to their family in order to escape. “Some escape,” she laughed — “more like the frying pan into the fire. First Texarkana, then those crazy Mormons.”
Here, I hesitate: when my mother told me these things recently about the drive-in, I was more than a little dismayed. Always I had imagined them — witnessed them in daily life — as people who would never do anything, consciously at least, to demean anyone. And later, after Texas, and during the 10 years we lived in Utah, my mother, in her very public, dramatic way, and my father, in his quiet, more private one, were radical liberals among the Mormons. So how could they behave like racists too? What might the camera see, if it were focused at another angle, that I have yet to see?
The white customers behind the Dallas car were getting restless, so my mother went to the car in the other lane and took their money, and took other customers’ money. “I didn’t know what would happen,” she said. “It was like that first job I had, you know, the one in that Mennonite town where the kids tried to run me out of school on the first day. It was me or them — and it wasn’t going to be me.”
A chrome fender glinting, a headlight flickering, the sun just going down, someone swearing under his breath, looks exchanged — and then the car wheeling out of line and pulling away: then dust drifting across the lens, dust settling on the other cars in line. Mouths moving, but no way to hear what they’re saying, faces grimacing — in anger? Maybe even laughter at some choice expletive? Then a pan of white faces staring out of their windshields, a pan of black faces in the back rows? So yes, they depended on the good favor of their white customers, yes, they were under the yoke of financial and familial obligation. It was me or them — and it wasn’t going to be me.
I see them in their youth: my mother standing by an old model Ford with a running board, staring into a fire built under some trees, while my father, on the other side of the fire, stares into the flames. For some reason, it seems significant that they peer into the fire together, rather than at each other.
This cook-out, if that’s what I’m remembering, must have occurred at the drive-in, probably behind the screen, since I still see quite clearly the creaminess of the marshmallow I’ve impaled on a stick, beginning to shrink up and wrinkle, its skin toasting brown, black, then finally turning molten and slithering like a live thing into the flames. So why do I recall that, but not Osie, or his wife, Mamie, who occasionally babysat my brothers and me?
In Utah, the place of their long-deferred rebellion, my mother became a high school teacher, my father used his engineering degree to get in on the ground floor of the space race. My mother said she felt a kind of righteous rage fueling her actions: “I was goddamned if I’d be quiet any longer,” she said — “the Mormon teachers in the high school nicknamed my classes Rosie’s Remedial Religion because we talked about things the Mormons wouldn’t allow: abortion, drugs, drinking, whether or not there was a God. And all that crap about Cain being black: I had a lot to say on that one. But it took its toll, that kind of fighting — it made me a hater — it hardened me.” And part of that hardening was the strain on my parents’ marriage: the just man or woman isn’t always easy to live with. Anger becomes a habit, as my mother knew full well. “Let’s just say,” she told me, “it didn’t make things any easier. But your dad was kind and gentle and took up the slack.”
My father, too, when he went down to Florida to Cape Canaveral to observe rocket launches, refused to eat in restaurants or stay in hotels where his fellow engineers weren’t welcome. If the restaurant owner gave them any trouble, he’d say, “If you’re not going to serve him, then you won’t serve me.” And then they’d walk out.
But here’s the rub: there have been plenty of racists in my family — and not in some distant, antebellum past, at a safe remove, but all through my growing up and adulthood. My grandfather was racist in how he treated the black nurses who so kindly nursed him during his final illness, calling them “blackbirds.” My father’s brother had a streak of it in him, as did my father’s father. My great-aunt, an old-style liberal Democrat, nevertheless had a fierce hatred of blacks. Whenever I went to visit her, she’d tell me in language that shocked me, for a woman as genteel as she was, how much she hated the black heroin users in her Newark apartment complex. Of course, they terrorized her and robbed her, so she felt she had good reason. But as an old woman, she eventually lost the ability to take people one person at a time, and this hate spread to anyone who was black
But it’s also important to tell this other part of the story about how my parents behaved in Utah, because if a story is going to matter, then something has to be revealed. Not resolved as in a plot, but revealed as in the unfolding of a life story. Plot, as Baldwin tells us in an essay on the movies, proves a point, answers the questions it proposes. But revelation means telling a story that, consciously at least, has nothing to hide. And whatever resolution comes in a story “must occur in us, with what we make of the questions with which the story leaves us.”
So what does the camera reveal? They fell into line behind Jim Crow. Based on their actions, our family was no different than the rest of the white people in that town. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? To restrict people to their actions is to reduce their lives to a plot. And none of us lives life like a plot, not even a racist. All of us live out stories. We may bury these stories under landslides of plot, and lie to ourselves and others, behave cruelly and unconsciously, or cruelly and consciously, subjecting our fellow human beings to our brutal inquisitions out of the utmost refinement of our consciences in the grip of some plot that we mistake for a story. But that’s not a story — stories don’t resolve in themselves; they resolve in us. I can’t tell you what to think of my parents, or my relatives, or me.
As my mother put it: “So we compromised, Tom. We felt we had to. It was all we could do to put one foot in front of the other. If we were in a tight spot for money, we had to hope that you boys would grow up okay, in spite of your having to watch John Wayne movies for a month — but he could bring the cars in, boy — the parking lot was always overflowing for John Wayne.”
And the truth is, despite my dislike of John Wayne, the public figure, I love John Wayne the actor, then and now. Whatever scars my mother was afraid of inflicting on us, whatever backward or unjust attitudes I’d pick up from the movies, wouldn’t compare with what daily life in Texas had to offer. But I can’t resist telling what she said were the worst, the absolute worst movies, we ever showed: “Anything Ronald Reagan was in,” she said. “Nobody came if the movie had Ronald Reagan. Bad actor, worse President. But I wonder what you must think of your pusillanimous parents?”
I am seven, maybe eight years old, when I first see To Kill a Mockingbird — just a year or two older than Scout, the little girl who tells the story. The scene that most clearly stands out in my mind is the moment before the jury delivers the verdict. I can see before me on the screen the courtroom, and in the center of the courtroom, the tall figure of Tom Robinson, the black laborer accused of raping a white woman, facing into the camera, so that his body and face are surrounded by a field of white faces. Their eyes drill into his back, but into my eyes in the audience.
I also remember the black faces up in the gallery where Scout is sitting. They stare down into my face from an angle high above my level in the audience. The camera angle (though talk of camera angles would have been beyond me as a child, though I still remember with complete visceral recall the effect of those angles) exaggerates both the height of the gallery, and the absolute separateness and distance between white and black. (At the church where my mother played the organ, signs pointed white worshippers to the downstairs pews, black worshippers to the ones in the balcony.) And then the camera narrows in on Tom and Atticus, the genteel, gentle, humane Southern lawyer, played by a genteel, gentle, humane Gregory Peck — I mention this because Peck’s persona on screen reminded me very strongly of my own father.
Tom was more of a stretch for me, though I also connected with him because we shared the same name. That, and the fact that, when he was on the stand, telling his side of the story, he began to cry — or at least struggled to keep tears back. I was shocked that a grown man, and a powerfully built one, would break down that way. More than anything I didn’t want to be a crybaby, even though I often did cry — and here a grown man was almost bawling. But that also served as a bridge between the Tom up on the screen and the Tom in his seat.
No, this wasn’t at the drive-in — we’d sold it a year or so before because of the advent of television — but my parents took me to the movies almost every weekend. We now lived in a tiny town in the Rocky Mountains, but I still had the flat, taffy-stretched vowels of a Texarkanan accent. And as Tom told his story about a white woman asking him to come into the house, and then throwing herself at him, his speech felt deeply familiar to me, even as the story he told made me feel a little squeamish: anything to do with sex would have in those days.
Oddly, I don’t remember thinking anything, or anything much, about the fact that he was black. So in a way, I’d missed the entire import of the movie. But what did register was that the white girl was lying about Tom. And I could see right away that Tom was telling the truth. But since I lied too to get out of punishments that I’d happily have visited on my brothers, I wasn’t so different from the white girl. I felt sorry for her—there was so much torment in her face, and such rage and shame when she accused Tom of raping her. But I didn’t know what to do with any of these feelings, except to get lost in the tension of what the verdict would be. Both Tom and Atticus were tall quiet men, and as they stood for the verdict, I watched the black faces above looking down on them, the white faces staring up from below.
When the foreman of the jury said, “Guilty,” I was bewildered — who was guilty? Tom or the white girl? Or was it her father, Bob Ewell — his name was Robert E. Lee Ewell, and I’d just read a book about Lee, a heroizing book that made almost no mention of slavery, but focused on Lee’s personal qualities as a leader. I was amazed that such an obviously evil character as Bob Ewell could be named after the virtuous Lee. And not only that, but this Robert E. Lee Ewell was going to triumph over an obviously good character like Tom — like Tom and Atticus both. It just made no sense.
As for the girl, well, girls were largely unaccountable in my moral universe, partly because we were a family of boys, and partly because I was way too shy to speak to any of them in school — except when we were forced to square dance with them in assembly hall. But I remember seeing a girl crying at a school dance, a girl named Jenny Fish whose father wouldn’t let her dance with anyone but him. Behind her thick glasses fastened to a chain around her neck, tears ran down her cheeks, and she seemed in the grip of some dreadful shame. But up on screen, I felt a seamless connection to Scout: she was a girl I could comprehend because she fought like a boy, ran around like a boy, hated wearing dresses, and even asked to be rolled down the street in a tire, revolving round and round until the tire, gaining speed, collided with the wooden steps of Boo Radley’s house, the crazy young man who’d stabbed his father, and never came out of the house, ever. All that made sense: Scout, Tom, Atticus.
But Ewell and his daughter felt inexplicable. In the movie, Atticus proved that Tom, because of his arm crippled by a cotton gin, couldn’t possibly have beaten up Ewell’s daughter, let alone left bruises around both sides of her throat by choking her with both hands: how could he choke her like that if he only had one hand? — and if I could see that at my age, then the grown men of the jury surely could understand it. And yet Tom was guilty. But guilty of what? That’s when it dawned on me that he was guilty of being black. I didn’t pick up at all on the innuendo, much subtler in the film than in the book, which makes it explicit, that the real violator was Ewell — that he’d beat up his own daughter, and possibly raped her. Nor did it occur to me that the girl was trying to shove off her shame and fear of her father onto Tom. But maybe my instinctive revulsion for Jenny Fish’s creepy father made Bob Ewell more comprehensible as a character than my bewilderment in the movie theater suggests.
However that may be, Ewell’s daughter’s disgrace became Tom’s disgrace became the father’s triumph: a morally perverse Möbius strip. So no matter how strong a case Atticus builds, the larger framework of Jim Crow renders that evidence irrelevant. So when Tom Robinson is taken into custody by the sheriff after he’s been pronounced “guilty,” it’s no wonder that the look of despair and anger in his eyes shows just a hint of contempt for Atticus’s naïveté. This is the only moment in the entire film when Tom Robinson has a moment of his own that isn’t mediated in some way by Atticus: either by asking him questions when Tom is on the stand, or by visiting his family during the trial. But never once do we see Atticus on film talking to Tom’s wife. Or children. Or any other black character, with the exception of his black housekeeper, Calpurnia, who could be viewed as nothing but an updated, far more dignified version of Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy in Gone With the Wind. It’s as if the segregation the movie so publicly deplores is still working behind the scenes to keep the black characters mute, little more than ciphers for white pity. And while the movie is far more ambiguous, and far less limited as a work of art than the book — still, what the camera sees is what Scout sees.
The book, in that sense, is deeply problematic: Flannery O’Connor — who refused to meet James Baldwin in her home town, though she would be willing to meet him in New York, wrote to a friend, “Might as well expect a mule to fly as me to see James Baldwin in Georgia” — called it “a children’s book.” O’Connor’s unwillingness to go beyond “the traditions of the society I feed on” says something as well about the limited angles that the filmmakers let the camera see. So when, in the movie, Atticus tells Tom that they’ll appeal, that they must expect to lose in this courtroom but that the outcome will be different in another courtroom, Tom’s anger shatters the frame of the movie, and, for one brief moment, he emerges as an independent character.
In fact, the only adequate response to the verdict would be for Atticus to join a revolution like the one in the Battleship Potemkin, and help the mutineers turn their guns onto the Tsarist ministries and blow them to pieces. The only way Tom Robinson will get justice is if the Maycomb Courthouse is blown to kingdom come. And even though Atticus is the best shot in town, and proves it by shooting a mad dog, he’s no revolutionary. It’s as if the movie’s remorseless logic wants to reduce Atticus to the liberal aspect of Jim Crow — the just man that Jim Crow relies on to go through the motions of a fair trial, even though a “guilty” verdict is a foregone conclusion.
Given that Tom’s fate is sealed, it’s revealing that the piece of evidence that affects the jury most is Tom Robinson’s testimony that he felt sorry for the white girl, that she must have been lonely. Up until this moment, it seems as if Atticus still has a fighting chance. But you can see on the prosecutor’s face a look of hate, as well as triumph: what Tom has just confessed to is a terrible crime — as bad, if not worse, than rape: a black man who is so uppity as to feel sorry for a white woman! Oddly enough — or maybe not so oddly — this made complete sense to me at the time: of course the white people hate that; doesn’t Tom know that he’s the weak one, and that the white people are the strong ones? If your mother or father or older brother yells at you to do this or that, what can be more infuriating than to feel sorry for them for their outburst — and then have the temerity to tell them so?
And in the way the prosecutor calls Tom “boy,” the vindictiveness and pettiness of his behavior after Tom expresses his pity for the white woman, shows that the deepest wound in the white male psyche as it’s portrayed in the film is to have to admit that the womenfolk are unsatisfied, lonely to be kissed — that in fact their menfolk are nothing but carbon copies of Robert E. Lee Ewell — overgrown, brutal children, inadequate as lovers and husbands. When Atticus insists that Tom Ewell was subjected to Ewell’s daughter’s attentions against his will, that he is a decent, hardworking man who should not be on trial for showing kindness, or held responsible for Ewell’s daughter breaking white-enforced taboos, he goes much further than the jury — or even the movie — is prepared to go. Even with his one crippled arm, Tom Robinson still poses a serious threat to white male superiority. He has more moral and spiritual integrity in him than any white man can stand to contemplate.
So of course he’s shot down trying to escape, running away, as the sheriff states, “like a madman.” But if I’d been in Tom Robinson’s shoes, I would have run too — unless, of course, he was simply pushed out of the car taking him to another jail, and shot down in cold blood. So I was shocked, but not surprised by his murder. I wouldn’t have known at the time the exact logic that required it, but it’s clear enough to me now — from the lynch mob early in the film that Atticus and Scout had stood up to, to Tom’s quiet dignity in the courtroom in comparison to Ewell’s ignorance and meanness, to the moment on the stand in which Tom lets slip that he feels sorry for Ewell’s daughter. And yet Atticus presents such a strong case, and with such passionate conviction, that Jim Crow can’t afford to take chances: and so Tom Robinson is shot down to avoid a second trial. The irony, of course, is that what would really make Tom a madman would be for him to place any hope in Atticus’s woefully idealized version of justice — admirable, courageous, generous, and even noble as Atticus is.
And yet for all its shortcomings, I greatly prefer a movie like To Kill a Mockingbird to a repetition compulsion of a movie like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. When I recently saw it, I felt nothing except adolescent anarchy trying to get a rise out of me, even as I admired the sophistication of the movie’s often hilarious, hipper-than-thou, wised-up savvy in manipulating the audience to accept, even revel, in being splattered by boatloads of movie blood. Race and slavery were only the excuse — not a lame, but an expertly deployed, excuse, given Tarantino’s technical expertise — but an excuse nonetheless. Furthermore, the movie turns the legacy of slavery into an absurdist trope, something we’ve all seen through or gotten beyond.
Whereas To Kill a Mockingbird embodies what I think art should do, no matter how badly it falls short: in Atticus and Scout, and to some extent, Tom Robinson, I feel the full range of our faculties being engaged: the movie doesn’t just moralize, or reflect, or imagine; it’s not some single faculty “moving and fanning the air,” to quote Robert Lowell. It attempts to show, not just some cartoonish sliver, but the whole human being in action. And in that action it reveals the ugly, even the tragic nature of trying to act decently inside a system that won’t allow it.
But I’m not just talking about movies. I’m talking about what I realized as a child in the humiliation and murder of Tom Robinson. I’m talking about the injustice that occurred in rows 10 and 11 at the drive-in, and how that injustice is never far removed from my fundamental sense of what we ought to strive to look at in art and life — no matter how painful or irreparably harmful the damage may be.
And again, I hesitate. The image of my parents humiliating their black customers can’t be wiped away by stirring statements. So I want to return to my mother’s question: just what do I think of my pusillanimous parents? Or is that question simply “plot,” me trying to manage, and answer for you, what only you, the listener to this story, can manage, and answer? But if I’m going to write beyond plot, that’s a risk I don’t see how I can avoid.
Now, what the camera sees is a blank: it doesn’t see them appealing to the sheriff for protection against their three visitors. You don’t see them sitting down to write an editorial to the local paper, full of “high and mighty bombast,” as my mother put it. They don’t stand on Main Street, passing out leaflets, or make stirring speeches in peoples’ doorways about racial equality and universal brotherhood. They have nothing to say, pro or con, about “the traditions of the society” they “feed on.”
Meanwhile, up on the big screen, their customers watch the courageous sheriffs and cowboy loners, those gun slinging heroes who stand up, night after night, for the Right. In order for my parents to assume those heroic proportions, as wide as the sky, they would have to be revolutionaries — the way, a decade later, the Black Panthers were revolutionaries, or the members of the Weather Underground, or the Symbionese Liberation Army. For the sake of revolution, my parents would have to be in earnest that Good meant killing people “who needed killing,” as John Wayne, playing Sheriff Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, so succinctly put it — but with perhaps a touch of self-mockery?
My mother tells the story that after a few years in Texas, she joined a singing group called the Euterpean Music Club — named after Euterpe, the Greek goddess of music. She and the other women would get together to sing the lyrics to musicals — Oklahoma!, for example; I have a strong memory of her dressed in drag as Curly, complete with red bandana, stetson, black boots, and jangling spurs. And when they weren’t doing Rodgers and Hammerstein, they sang some classical: Handel’s Messiah.
One day when they were practicing, the Queen of England’s coronation was broadcast on TV — one of the first TVs in town, and the harbinger of the end for not only the drive-in, but much else: Jim Crow could not stand the light of day — the murders of Cheney, Goodman, and Schwerner, black school children being roughed up and screamed at, Bull Connor letting loose his police dogs on demonstrators — the little cathode ray that lit up, with a soft blue light, the windows of dark houses, helped to overcome the dreadful isolation in that little town that my mother said was one of the worst deprivations of her life — and showed Jim Crow in an increasingly unflattering light. Not that the racist underpinnings of Jim Crow are over with — but at least that particular manifestation was shown, not in the romance of a burning torch, but in the harsh focus of a camera’s spotlight.
My mother said that if it weren’t for her loneliness, she would probably not have joined this particular group of women: they were all well off, certainly a large step up from her hardscrabble life at the drive-in, where she and my father never took a day off, ever. Not only was there a black-white divide, there was a class divide: rich white, middle-class white, working-class white, poor white, and then white-trash white — an ambiguous denomination for whites like Robert E. Lee Ewell. Okies, hillbillies, rednecks were made so by their lack of education, whereas Bob Ewell, no matter his noble-sounding namesake, was seen as lazy, shiftless, morally degraded—one of the “Base-born products of base beds,” as W. B. Yeats would put it, in one of his uglier forays into the pseudoscience of eugenics that is still alive and well in the sociobiology rants of even a great scientist like E. O. Wilson.
But to return to my mother’s story. The woman whose house the Euterpeans had gathered in, as were most of the women, of a class where they could afford to employ black women as full-time maids and domestics. My mother said that her hostess treated this woman who worked for her — well, certainly not in the way that Atticus treated his housekeeper, Calpurnia — as an equal treats equals who, in fact, aren’t equals, but out of sufferance and daily necessity pretend they are — that her fellow Euterpean tended to treat this black woman as a person of no culture, with an unconscious condescension that was hard for my mother to bear. And so when the woman called in the housekeeper to see the Queen, the woman said something that the other white women seized on, and mocked her for, laughing mercilessly at the woman’s expense, their unthinking mocking laughter horrifying my mother at their cruelty.
“And what did you do?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she said, “I did nothing. I tried to speak with her, but she left the room, confused, not knowing what she’d said that everyone had thought was so funny. The worst thing about it was that the women were unconscious: they seemed not to know that they were being cruel.”
“So Ma, come on, tell me, just what did she say?”
“Well,” said my mother, “when the woman who was her employer called her in, she said to her, ‘Look, look, there’s the Queen.’ And the woman looked at the TV for a little while, and said — it was just awful the way they laughed at her — the woman said, ‘I see the Queen. But where’s the football?'”
As Baldwin cautions us, the camera lies because it sees only what you point it at. And while I have no reason to doubt my mother’s account of the Queen’s coronation, the camera, quite clearly, was pointed at the Euterpeans, at my mother, and me through my mother — but only tangentially at the housekeeper. So let’s pull the camera back and see what else there is to see.
What none of the women could have known is that the coronation of the then young Queen Elizabeth, which occurred in 1953, was filmed not only in full color, but in 3-D. But because the American women were watching a one dimensional, black and white TV set, they couldn’t see full color, or 3-D; all they could see on a black and white set was one dimension in black and white.
Now let’s suppose that a color, 3-D camera from 2013, a full 60 years after this incident in which my mother felt shame in this woman’s humiliation, focuses back down the years on this particular woman’s face. How do we know, how do I know, that she doesn’t know perfectly well the difference between homecoming queens and the House of Windsor? So let’s give her a history and a name that she alone knows, and let’s study the film more closely: is that a touch of subtle mockery in her face? By talking of queens, by talking of football, is she in fact mocking these white women? Their supposed superiority? Their Euterpean airs?
But of course I’ll never know, in 2013, what she was feeling in 1953.
The camera sees only what you want it to see — unless it slips — or you let it slip — and then you might see something different, something outside the frame, something more.