From a right-wing perspective, President Obama’s brief introduction to the fiftieth anniversary screening of To Kill a Mockingbird, airing tonight on USA Network, is a dirty trick. They think Obama’s using the 1962 film to pose as an Atticus Finch–type hero, though all he and the liberal media really want is to divide the country along racial lines. And blame whitey.
The elements for such a paranoid vision are all there: the country and the media are passionately torn over the Trayvon Martin case—Fox’s Bill O’Reilly has argued that the liberal media wouldn’t mind “inciting racial violence” against accused shooter George Zimmerman, while MSNBC host Al Sharpton has led protest rallies in Sanford, Florida, where Martin was shot dead. Further, NBC made a grievous error by editing a tape of Zimmerman’s 911 call that made it sound as if he had volunteered that Martin was black, when in fact he was asked Martin’s race by the dispatcher. NBC has fired the producer in charge of that tape. (Sure, Fox News has misleadingly edited tapes and promoted lies—for Fox, it’s a minor error and almost no one ever gets fired—but when mainstream media do that, it’s evidence of a hidden bias against conservatives. Fox’s bias is anything but hidden.)
And conspiracy theorists take note, the big-deal White House screening of Mockingbird—endorsed by Harper Lee, author of the 1960 book on which the film is based—is “also tied to the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Universal film studio. The studio and USA Network are both owned by NBC Universal,” as the New York Times writes.
That is, by the right’s lights, liberals and NBC are cynically using the venerable film to further Obama’s reelection chances. They believe Obama is posing as the reincarnation of the beloved, beyond-reproach Atticus Finch, the small-town attorney who defends Tom Robinson, an innocent black man who is accused of raping a white woman. And by extension, many conservatives say, Obama is making Trayvon Martin out to be Tom Robinson, who was later killed. Some commenters on the Breitbart.com site Big Hollywood feel sure about what’s really going down. WALTER90 writes:
Obama will stand or sit there and compare the Travon martin [SIC] situation to what transpires in To Kill a Mockingbird. He will ask America why we haven’t moved on. Why we are still a violent racist society. Of course, he won’t lay any of the racism charges on blacks, or latinos or anyone except white people.
You are right, the comparison is very striking, but it is 180 degrees from the book…. As today’s true story emerges, Obama and the MSM now represent the racist mob that wants to lynch the accused. In Harper Lee’s story, a race card was placed to cover up the truth. Then the card was white; now it is black. Whatever the final outcome, Zimmerman is a mockingbird that black hatred killed.
Of course, in right-wing eyes, Obama was up to racial no-good well before his Mockingbird remarks. When Obama commiserated with Trayvon’s parents by saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Newt Gingrich shouted “disgraceful.” “Why is Obama getting involved in that mess in Miami?” a white woman in the South indignantly asked someone I know. One thing our first black president should never do is openly acknowledge his race.
Still, there’s some truth to the right’s idea that identifying with Atticus Finch is politically charged. This is the movie the Obama campaign has been wanting him to star in since forever. Like Atticus, played by Gregory Peck in an Oscar-winning performance, Obama avoids outrage; like Atticus, Obama is stymied in achieving justice by reactionary forces, but he responds with restraint. Even when he loses his battles, that restraint, with its hint of honor, can pass as sufficient, because it makes clear how wrong his opponents are—as we see in this clip, in which the father of the girl who charges rape confronts Atticus:
It’s not exactly the same as shouting “You lie!” but the tone is similar. Peck’s decency is so noble that its ultimate ineffectiveness is almost entirely forgiven. And it’s redeemed in a way by the Boo Radley subplot, which has the poor, white, social outcast save the Finch children from racist revenge, hinting that the least among the whites do indeed share in some of that Peckian nobility.
The question in the Trayvon Martin shooting is, Who, of any race, plays Boo Radley?