Aaron Sorkin's 'To Kill A Mockingbird' and the Myth of "Rational Racism"

We consider the different actors that played Atticus Finch in Sorkin's adaptation, and how the fight against racism can't be won with "facts and logic."
June 3, 2020, 4:27pm
Photo of a scene from To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch (Ed Harris) places his hand to his mouth in contemplation, seated at a table with his defendant Tom Robinson (
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

As protesters take to the streets, and cops respond with violence, it's become clear that more and more people understand that racism isn't something you can get rid of through vigourous debate. The issue is systemic, and when that system will not be reformed, and the lives of Black people are at risk, protest is the only way to make the voices of the marginalized heard. Rob, Cado, and Gita sit down to talk about the past week’s protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police, and the myth of there being a “correct way” to protest. Then Gita and Rob discuss the two different versions of Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill A Mockingbird that they attended way back when theater was still a thing, and how the play subtly deconstructs Atticus Finch's normally unimpeachable nobility.

Gita: In the version of the play that I saw there was a, did you have this also? There's a conversation with the Black maid of that house?

Rob: Yes.

Gita: I think Ed Harris is just a better actor than Jeff Daniels, because in that scene like there is a natural sense of smugness to the Atticus Finch character, because he is the patriarchy, is the moral paragon, of that play. You know, using a black woman as a device to undercut him is something I've seen like in a million different pieces of fiction, but in here it felt like Ed Harris projecting that Atticus Finch did not necessarily learn anything from that conversation, that this was a futile attempt that his own arrogance was what got in the way of him actually serving the Black community.

And this woman is out here knowing that she's risking a lifetime friendship and positive employment opportunity by trying to check him because he's willing in that scene to treat her like a Black person when he doesn't do that to her at any other time. He says the thing that I've heard said to me by other journalists in this industry about marginalized people, which is "why don't you just say thank you." And in this version of the scene you could feel the hurt from the Black person, and Ed Harris is just a fucking stone wall, he's not willing to listen, and that is framed as bad. So I don't know how that felt to you when you saw it.

Rob: It's interesting, I think this comes through I think in some ways the thing that I think both actors sort of adopted with this is a posture of "this is not a particularly admirable character." I think the thing that did surprise me in To Kill a Mockingbird is how much this is a familiar Sorkin-esque character with familiar Sorkin-esque patterns. But also, it makes the ways in which these things have been ugly subtextually in previous Sorkin works, kind of the text of the show right? I was taken aback by how often it was just like, "oh that was sort of a snarky Sorkin-esque line", but it just lands like an anvil, just in the middle of a conversation. The scenes with the housekeeper are brutal in that way because he comes across as so incredibly tone deaf but also the ways in which he shreds what she thought was a mutual understanding about her place in the family and her ability to sort of speak freely and openly with them. And the way he sort of reinforces that like, "Hmmm, you're also help. There's a hierarchy. We love you, but–"

Gita: "You can't call me out. As soon as you call me out, you're the help again. We're friends until you call me out! But if you say anything about my behavior, then why don't you just say thank you instead?"

Rob: It makes it all the more powerful though when she does just unload on him in the last act of the play when everything has gone to shit, and she basically calls out that he is the person who set this up. His insistence on believing that people are decent , you know what I mean? That –

Gita: That racism can be reasoned with is the thing that he is relying on, and that's something that I think the current Democratic Party in part because of Aaron Sorkin also believes that. All it takes is one great white orator and racism is over. Everyone will go, "oooohhhh" and then racism is gone, you know.

Rob: Yeah. "By my own logic."

Gita: God, it's not Supa Hot Fire here, it's not rap battle. Racism doesn't come from a rational place, it comes from fear. Fear is not rational, you can't just talk people out of these beliefs, you have to just condemn them, you have to make them not acceptable. When I got to the end of this play I felt like Ed Harris's version of Atticus Finch understood that, because that scene where he looks over Jem in the bed happened right after people were saying that the the racist that lynched Tom Robinson had died. And they were like, "I think charging them with anything would be like killing a mockingbird," and they gave that little sentence a lot of weight. They took everyone right to the front of the stage, and they had it be conspiratorially, but cheated towards the audience so we are in in the conspiracy as well. And we are all sharing in this truth that something extra-legal happened, but it was just. It was just in the way that nothing else that happened in the play was just. And Atticus Finch's accepting of an extra-legal murder being just in this instance because this person was upholding white supremacy, that for me felt like [the play] coalescing into Ed Harris's Atticus Finch understanding that the law itself is racist, you can't argue away racism, you can't do it. You have to fight in other ways and you have to fight outside the law sometimes.

This transcript was edited for length and clarity.

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