Not as well-written, but far less reductive about racism. Photo: Getty
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Why Go Set a Watchman is a much better novel than To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee's newly released novel may not win another Pulitzer, but it's far more honest and mature about the complexity of racism in the South.

Go Set a Watchman turns out to be a hot mess of a book. The flashes of lyrical genius and ability to evoke the intensity of childhood play that come to fruition in To Kill a Mockingbird are in evidence, but so too are rather obscure discussions on constitutional law and the tenth amendment, an irritatingly pert main character, and a dull love interest. It’s nowhere near the novel Mockingbird is. It is much better than that.

In the days running up to Watchman’s release, Mockingbird fans – for there can be no other description, mere "readers" or "admirers" won't suffice – set aside difficult ethical discussions of whether the 89-year-old Harper Lee was capable of really consenting to the publication of what many believed amounted to a rough first draft of her work.

Instead fans took to twitter with their wishlist of what they hoped for in the sequel. Some hoped Scout and Dill would be married. Some hoped Jem and Scout spent Christmases together, filling Maycomb County with the happy chatter of their adorable precocious children. Some hoped Boo Radley was out and about, perhaps working in telesales. Curiously though, no one seemed to be hoping that Atticus was a fully paid-up member of the White Citizen’s Council, bending his arthritis-addled hands to the fight against integration, and explaining to Scout: “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people”.

Funny that no one saw that coming. Really, they should have. Because outside the white liberal fantasy that is To Kill a Mockingbird, the reality, the historical record shows us that (spoiler alert!) the vast majority of white Southerners were racist and didn’t want to sit next to black people in the theatre.

We did know that the so-called white trash Southerners, the KKK members, the Bob Ewells, the ignorant poor, didn’t want to sit next to black people. Mockingbird taught us that. What Watchman tells us, and tells us rather powerfully, is that racism is not confined to people who are so clearly not like us.

Some commentators on Watchman have suggested Atticus becomes racist as he gets older, as if some kind of dramatic ideological transformation has taken place in his worldview since Mockingbird.  It’s nonsense. He was racist in Mockingbird, but just politer about it. He thinks everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, and everyone should be able to access justice. He doesn’t want Tom Robinson to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit. He thinks Tom Robinson is a good man. But he doesn’t want to sit next to him in a theatre.

Racism is not, and never has been, a yes/no question. Many white Southerners who risked considerable personal danger to challenge some forms of racial injustice were perfectly comfortable with other forms. The Committee on Interracial Co-operation, founded in 1919 in Atlanta in response to a wave of racial violence across the South, wanted to improve communication between white and black people in the South. But they didn’t want to end segregation. The Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, founded in 1930, sought to protect people like Tom Robinson from the horrors of the lynch mob. But they didn’t want to end segregation.

Politeness in the South has always masked the kinder, gentler racism practised by middle-class whites. Shocked by the Supreme Court’s determination to force Southern states to abandon segregation, men like Atticus Finch – the “men of substance and character, responsible men, good men”, the men Jean Louise sees at the White Citizen’s Council  stop being polite.

The mistake made by so many fans of Mockingbird was to assume that a passion for justice and the rule of law went alongside a commitment to racial equality, and a determination to overcome prejudice. Sometimes, it didn’t. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton has said that Watchman, “reflects the reality of finding out that a lot of those we thought were on our side harboured some different personal feelings”.

This is what makes Watchman better than Mockingbird. It’s not better written, I doubt it’s going to win another Pulitzer, and since its release the list of actors queueing up to play Atticus in Mockingbird 2 got a lot shorter. But Watchman is a lot more honest. It doesn’t feed white America the comforting version of civil rights history where the bad guys are easily identifiable ignorant hicks, the good guys are heroic and noble white men with impeccable manners, and the black people are all subservient, respectful and endlessly patient.

Mockingbird is a child’s book, told by a child. Watchman is for grown-ups. It asks serious questions about what racism is. And it comes at a time when American desperately needs a grown-up conversation about race. 

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.