How Aaron Sorkin has reworked a masterpiece for the age of Trump

Creative Sensemaker: What to read, watch and listen to this weekend | Soho House

Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

Friday 18 March 2022   By Matt d’Ancona

Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.
Warning: includes spoilers
It is 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 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. 
This scene from To Kill A Mockingbird – both 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 creator of The West Wing was invited to adapt Lee’s story for the stage, he decided – correctly – that this scene would have to go.
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 seemed, to a generation of liberals, to herald an era of reform and a campaign for racial justice that had history on its side.
Yet 62 years on, Sorkin found himself adapting Lee’s novel in the age of Donald Trump, right-wing militias, the industrialised incarceration of people of colour, and the killing of young Black men. 
 The late Toni Morrison criticised To Kill A Mockingbird as a ‘white saviour’ narrative. As Sorkin himself 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.’
Accordingly, Sorkin grasped that he could not treat Lee’s book as a sacred text or a museum piece. He gives agency and voice to the main Black characters, with Calpurnia, housekeeper to the Finch family, becoming the conscience of the play, taking Atticus to task after he has made his son apologise to a racist neighbour. ‘I believe in being respectful,’ Atticus replies. Calpurnia: ‘No matter who you’re disrespecting by doin’ it.’ 
This is the heart of the matter. While the main protagonist of Lee’s novel is Scout, in Sorkin’s adaptation it is Atticus himself – played by Rafe Spall and presented as a much more ambiguous, conflicted and fragile character than in the novel or the film. 
For all the changes that Sorkin has made, the question posed by Lee remains the most basic challenge facing contemporary progressivism. Is it enough to keep trying to be decent? 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.

Creative Sensemaker: What to read, watch and listen to this weekend | Soho House


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. Affleck is chilling as the cuckolded husband, often immobilised by humiliation and fury, and de Armas is a revelation as Melinda: wretched, seductive and enraged by turns, and more than a match for Affleck as a screen presence.

Creative Sensemaker: What to read, watch and listen to this weekend | Soho House
Creative Sensemaker: What to read, watch and listen to this weekend | Soho House


Free Speech: A Global History From Socrates To Social Media by Jacob Mchangama 
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 other flow and that we constrain it at our peril. His book shows that throughout history, new communication technologies have inspired a panicked resort to censorship and self-censorship: invariably, with adverse consequences. 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 deserves as wide a readership as possible.


WHO CARES? by Rex Orange County 
Recorded in less than a fortnight in Amsterdam, WHO CARES? takes as its starting point the 23-year-old artist’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. 


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.

Starting in the main lobby discussing the ROH’s foundation, the group went on to climb 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.

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

Best wishes,

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
Tortoise Media

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