Stephen King’s 11.22.63: an extraordinary tale of everyday whiteness
If you were given the chance to go back to 1960, to change history in a positive and meaningful way, then what would you choose to do?
Would trying to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 be your top priority?
Such is the premise of 11.22.63, a flagship Hulu 2016 series, produced by J.J. Abrams from a book of the same title by Stephen King.
*** Warning: SPOILER ALERT! ***
This is a discussion of the whole series of 11.22.63, so inevitably there are a number of spoilers. If you haven’t seen the series yet, I recommend you watch it first, and then come back and read this. ***
The main protagonist of the drama, Jake Epping, an English teacher in Maine, 2016 (played by James Franco) is shown a rabbit hole through time that allows him access to 1960. He is sent there by a dying man, with instructions and directions on how (if possible) to prevent JFK’s assassination.
This is where I had most problems with the series.
I am not enough interested in the issues and controversies around JFK’s death, to the extent that the whole idea of the series was quite a barrier to actually taking the trouble of watching it. Although I have enjoyed some of Stephen King’s work in the past, I would not describe myself as his ‘number one’ fan.
I overcame this resistance, and I am glad I did. There is a lot more to 11.22.63 than JFK. And, although (as you would guess) the events of November 1963 are central to the plot, the assassination serves as a device for the characters’ issues, rather than the other way around.
Thus, the big question that I ask of the story-line as a whole is not so much what it tells us (or obfuscates) about Lee Harvey Oswald and the events on Dealey Plaza and the Book Depository on that fateful day.
Rather, for me at least, what does 11.22.63 tell us about American society in 2016?
That is, how do we romanticize and re-imagine the past of the early 1960s? What differences did Kennedy and his generation make to the development of US society?
And, in particular, how does today’s America come to terms with (or try to forget) the Civil Rights Movement of that era, and the ongoing divisions of race and racism, as highlighted today by Black Lives Matter?
How do we understand this TV drama through bringing to the foreground the implicit and unexamined questions of whiteness within such a racially charged framework?
I have not read the original Stephen King novel that this TV drama is adapted from. But the issues of race and racism are apparently more prominent in the adaptation than the book.
Where is the race?
The most obvious personification of ‘the colorline’ is in the secondary character of Mimi Corcoran, the administrator in the small-town Jodie High School, near Dallas. The protagonist Jake shows her kindness at an early stage, by helping her buy petrol for her broken-down car from a ‘whites only’ garage.
It becomes clear after a while that Mimi is having a relationship (of some sort) with the (white) headteacher of the school, Deke Simmons. For fairly obvious (and unstated) reasons, she says that they have spent their ‘lives next to one another, not with one another’. Indeed, it was not until the landmark SCOTUS decision of Loving v Virginia in 1967 that Texas’ ‘anti-miscegenation’ laws were overturned to ‘allow’ marriage across the racial divide.
Lying closely beneath the surface is a society in which the school itself (along with all other Texas schools) had been desegregated just a few years previously — most likely with some considerable reluctance — following the momentous 1954 Brown v Board of Education ruling by SCOTUS. Images of the school children at Jodie suggest that this desegregated school was still very largely segregated in fact.
Apart from Mimi, little acknowledgement is made in either the storylines or the characters of these simmering tensions that were in the process of erupting in that decade of Civil Rights, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jnr.
A small hint is given in the diversion into the involvement of Oswald with General Walker. The main drama here that explores this seemingly strange and unresolved aspect of Oswald’s lead up to 11/22, is the verbal attack that Oswald makes on Walker in episode 3, shouting out the latter’s fascism. This is, of course, well documented in history, by Walker’s opposition to desegregation and civil rights.
However, this central part of the narrative of the 1960s — particularly with its implications of the eventual rise of George Wallace — is a thread that is left severely undeveloped in the overall plot. With so much at stake in the exploration of Kennedy’s death in Dallas, there is apparently no time to explore this major overcurrent of racial tension and conflict.
In the drama, Walker is shot at, but not killed, as we know. Jake’s intention was to confirm if Oswald had been the shooter, but this proves impossible to discern due to other strands of the plot intervening. There is no further connection made in this narrative between Walker’s anti-segregation and white supremacism, and the larger picture of this within Kennedy’s death is not explored further.
Indeed, the main focus of the story is on Jake and his love interest, the school librarian Sadie Dunholm, both of whom come over as whiter than white.
Again, a small nod is made towards a more complex picture of America. Jake’s ex-wife Christy is a woman of color (played by Brooklyn Sudano) — although in many respects this is a throw-away detail for the story. But there is obviously a contrast here between Jake’s failed marriage of the present day with his more-than-real eternal relationship with Sadie in this fantasy life in the past.
In this respect, the narrative seems to suggest that — despite all the difficulties of psycho ex-husbands with clothes pegs on his genitals (yes, but don’t ask!) — life and whiteness were both much more ‘simple’ (i.e., simply white) back in the nostalgic realm of the 60s.
The perks of whiteness
The focus on whiteness gives us one of the most extraordinarily ordinary moments during the series. This occurs in the final episode, in the lift of the Book Depository on 11/22, shortly after Oswald’s assassination attempt fails.
Given all that has happened in America in the past few years, it is not clear if the parallel with today is intended or not.
Jake has been arrested and is in the custody of the Dallas police, being escorted to an interrogation.
As the police stand surrounding Jake in the lift, he is warned of his imminent imprisonment and possible execution. When he tells them to ‘shut up’, an officer turns and punches him and then says ‘too bad you banged your head on that door frame’.
This was 1963.
Watching in 2016, the parallels with today’s brutal realities are clear to see. Jake’s emergence from the lift relatively unscathed can only be down to his whiteness, his not being black. And the audience know this: they don’t expect him to die in police custody, because that sort of thing doesn’t happen — not to people like him.
We know about Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, and so many young black men who are remembered because of their names becoming hashtags and perhaps their final seconds being recorded on a phone by a passerby or loved one. A seemingly accidental death in police custody is not unusual in today’s world, at least for people of color.
In contrast, in the end Jake emerges unscathed in his encounter with the police. He is an obvious beneficiary of the ‘all lives matter’ mantra. Knowing what we know in 2016, we cannot easily believe a black man would have come out of that lift alive in 1963.
But Jake is saved by his whiteness, just as he does in fact manage to save the president and so returns back to the present. It is only then, though, that he discovers a nightmare America, which has been obliterated by a nuclear apocalypse in the 1970s under President George Wallace.
Jake again has an option of saving history from itself, he returns to 1960 and so ‘resets’ the present. Kennedy once again has been assassinated, and the present is just what it is.
And so, we can give thanks for it all to the well-meaning white guy. He saves the world without really trying too hard.
Fantasies on the privileges of whiteness
In many respects, the story is one that epitomizes through a fantasy the privileges of whiteness in present day America. This well-meaning liberal man is able to go back to 1960 and lead a simple life of teaching in a desegregated school, whilst he spends years literally spying on (i.e., bugging) his neighbors.
What is largely unexplored is the scale of difference a person of color would have had in such a piece of time-traveling.
Jake is found to be somehow involved in the attempted shooting of the president and then is allowed to live by the police. As, of course, was Oswald in the real version (in comparison with Micah Johnson in Dallas in August 2016).
Indeed, is it not the privilege of whiteness in America to think JFK’s assassination was the biggest deal of the 1960s? Why is there not even a mention of what more could have been achieved from the Civil Rights movement, and what was lost in the deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jnr.?
Indeed, even the main premise of the story is one that comes directly from this white privileged position. We are told that on Kennedy’s death hinged America’s major postcolonial war in Vietnam, and that the end point of this story was something even worse: a disastrous Wallace presidency leading to world war and (global?) nuclear annihilation.
But we simply don’t know, and we cannot know, what difference Kennedy’s death made to the other issues that transformed America during the 1960s.
What we do know, though, is that Kennedy’s death gave the presidency to Lyndon B Johnson, who was the architect of the ‘Great Society’ program, including the Civil Rights, Voting Rights, and Immigration Acts. But he also also produced Vietnam.
We can only ask ‘what if…’ about history: would Kennedy have wanted or been able to concede more or less than Johnson to Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement?
In a ‘flash back’ sequence in episode 5, we see an earlier Jake with his class in Maine in 2016, discussing possible options that could be done with an imaginary time machine. If only we could go back and do something to change history to make it better. The obvious answer, to ‘kill Hitler’ or Stalin or Saddam Hussein, brings us the question of whether killing someone is the best option for change. How else can a person promote good and stop evil — to bend the arc of the moral universe further towards justice— by making an intervention in time?
Jake’s (and Stephen King’s) answer is quite simple — prevent the death of someone who was acting for the greater good. Don’t kill Lee Harvey Oswald, just stop him taking the second, kill shot. But what then? Although the immediate outcome is better, the rest is an apocalyptic history.
So, we are left with that open question of what could we do if we had the chance to go back and play a part in showing 1960s America that black lives matter?
And this, in particular, is what I like about the premise of the series.
But my suggestion is this:
Instead of leaving the story where it is, with Stephen King’s conclusion, why not use the story as the basis for a whole ‘Marvel’-type world of explorations of possible pasts and presents? What could have been done by individuals in the early 1960s that would have made the present a better (or worse) world?
What advice from today could have been offered to Martin Luther King Jnr. and/or Malcolm X to nudge further forward their lives, battles, and the people they led?
What would have happened if it had been Robert Kennedy’s life that had been saved, rather than his brother’s, or Martin Luther King himself? What if the Republicans had been prevented from developing the southern strategy? Or even, what if an early intervention had been taken with the young Donald Trump, to push him in early life away from the self-centered world of right-wing, white misogynist privilege that he has embodied now for so long?
The premise of the story is so simple and so interesting — the strange, magical portal through which anyone can pass and into which a particular change to the present-day world can be made. Only one change will survive, so it must be a good one. For such a time traveler, the opportunities for a white American to make such change in the Jim Crow 1960s are so much easier than for an African American.
But even so, this is a story that can be told again and again in so many different ways, and from so many different angles.
The lens of whiteness is not the only means of viewing today’s America through its uneasy past.
I would like to see where other views may take us.
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