When I first heard about the movie Patriots Day, I was shocked. As a proud Bostonian, the horrific events surrounding the 2013 Boston Marathon have a personal effect on me, and I was appalled when I heard that a film recounting the attack and its aftermath was going to be made. There were people who wanted to use those terrifying few days as entertainment? Less than four years after the event took place? Spectators re-living a real attack that took and changed lives forever? I remember that day so clearly. I remember thinking how unreal it seemed; how it was as if real life had become a film as my family watched the news and listened to sirens blazing and stayed locked down in our home as a manhunt took place. I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn't a movie. It was real. It was frightening and disturbing and actually happening.
Now, it is important to note that I have not actually seen Patriots Day, nor do I know anybody who has seen it, and though I find the link between tragedy and entertainment interesting and thought-provoking, I will not watch this film. That this painfully real event was turned into a movie so quickly doesn’t seem right to me. It’s as if the creation of a film could diminish the actual event, as real people are made into characters, and horrifying actions are accompanied by background music and artistic cinematography. But this is certainly not the first film to depict a tragedy. In fact, this sort of thing happens all the time, and it is not something I always find so disturbing. Why is this? Is it just because of my more personal connection to the marathon bombing? Is it ever okay to link tragic events with entertainment?
Over winter break, I saw a musical called The Scottsboro Boys at the SpeakEasy Stage Company in Boston that raised many of these same questions. The 2010 musical, written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, composers and lyricsts of other renowned shows such as Chicago and Cabaret, tells the true story of nine black teenagers in Alabama who were sentenced to death in 1931 for the rape of two white women—a crime they did not commit. I was actually unfamiliar with this particular story, something I now find appalling, as it is such an important one to know and is thought to have been a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. At the same time, the story is horrifically familiar, as it is reminiscent of modern day injustice for black men in the court of law. I found it particularly evocative of the infamous Central Park Five/Central Park Jogger case of 1989. I received tickets to this show as a Christmas present, and honestly, upon entering the theater, I was very unsure what I was about to see.
Musical theater does so many things. It can provide a means of escape from everyday life. It can capture you in nostalgia. It can transport you to faraway places and it can be uplifting and poignant. But I had never before seen a musical based entirely upon a horrific, disturbing, and, most importantly, true tragedy. The musical is told through the medium of a minstrel show, a choice that is controversial and provocative given the long history of terrible racism against African-Americans in that particular genre of performance. The show features big dance and song numbers and on paper sounds as though it could be extremely offensive and destined to be a massive failure. But, in my opinion, it somehow works. This musical punches you right in the stomach in the way that it confronts this tragedy in an extremely creative, thoughtful, and heartbreaking way. It is consistently demands self-reflection. It asks a plethora of questions—questions about the truth in regard to race (one chilling line that has stuck with me ever since I saw the show was when a lawyer states: “you’re guilty because of the way that you look”). It asks questions about what it means to be free in the world and in your own mind. It asks questions about ingrained prejudice and bias in each and every one of us. This show is truly impossible to accurately convey in words because of the constantly conflicting emotions it incites in you. The Scottsboro Boys is so much more than a retelling of a tragic event. It starts crucial conversations about the long history of racism present in our country. The music is fantastic, and the choreography is stellar, but you are simultaneously loving it and hating it.
Those who know me are familiar with my adoration of musical theater. Throughout my 19 years, I have managed to see and listen to a multitude of different musicals, and each one has affected me in its own, unique way. But I can easily say that The Scottsboro Boys provided me with the most profound musical theater experience I have ever had. However, it is true that what the Scottsboro boys went through is not something I ever have to or ever will have to worry about happening to me. As a white woman, can I even decide that this musical is justified? I’m not sure I can. But I do think that condemning a show like The Scottsboro Boys would prevent crucial conversations from being held. It would stop people from gaining a better understanding of the tragedy of racial injustice in America.
So maybe I have misjudged Patriots Day. It is certainly important to keep these types of stories alive through film and performance and to use these stories to better the world in which we live. Often people forget what entertainment is capable of doing and how powerful it can really be. It’s great to go see a film or a musical and forget about your life for a while, as you focus only on the characters and the fictionalized world you see in front of you. But these types of art forms are capable of so much more. They can make you think profoundly and painfully. They can hold up a mirror to reveal the injustices in our world. They can pose questions so poignant and powerful that you can’t stop thinking about them. The Scottsboro Boys does all of this. I’m not sure about Patriots Day, but perhaps it does, too. The connection between tragedy and entertainment is always going to make me a bit uneasy, but if done right, it can provide a means of improving ourselves and our world.