Larry got it Right in Mystic River

salonlogo.gifAn open let­ter to the author of an oth­er­wise good review of Mys­tic Riv­er in Salon:

Hel­lo Ms. Zacharek,

I did enjoy your review of Mys­tic Riv­er, and am look­ing for­ward to see­ing it this week­end. I espe­cial­ly enjoyed your obser­va­tions on con­cep­tions of neigh­bor­hood, and on the film’s sense of place.

While it’s true that Boston’s many neigh­bor­hoods are more self-con­tained than most cities’, I think it’s a leap to assume that this clan­nish­ness is total. It’s equal­ly true to argue that all of Boston is insu­lat­ed from oth­er parts of the coun­try. There is a dis­tinct com­mon Boston cul­ture, which includes things like lan­guage, val­ues, and tra­di­tions (red sox).

And while there may be an evi­dent us vs. them dynam­ic between cer­tain groups in the city, there is always a cir­cling of the wag­ons when Boston is fac­ing out­ward to the rest of the coun­try. So there must be more to this place than the sum of its parts.

Which leads me to ask you about this:

His part­ner is played by Lau­rence Fish­burne, who wasn’t told, unfor­tu­nate­ly, that black peo­ple in Boston don’t speak with a Boston accent.

I know it’s a minor bone to pick, but what expe­ri­ence or knowl­edge did you use as basis for that com­ment? An assump­tion that only Irish-Bosto­ni­ans drop their Rs and As? Michael Dukakis cer­tain­ly would debunk that state­ment.

Vis­it an ele­men­tary school in Chi­na­town, and you’ll see the chil­dren of Chi­nese immi­grants say­ing cah and pahk, just like many of their teach­ers. Maybe not to the exag­ger­at­ed degree that you’d find on the South Shore or in the Kennedy fam­i­ly, but it’s there.

Would you sim­i­lar­ly argue that blacks born and edu­cat­ed in Chica­go don’t speak with a Great Lakes Mid-West accent?

The Boston accent orig­i­nat­ed in East Anglia, when the first Eng­lish colonists came from. It’s been refined and extend­ed by a immi­grant groups of all kinds (not to men­tion a few of us trans­plants from oth­er parts of the coun­try). I think there is a mis­tak­en assump­tion here, and I’d hate for non-Bosto­ni­ans to get the wrong idea when watch­ing this film.

Respect­ful­ly,
Ned ned.suckahs.org

Now, I’m not a native Boston­ian, but I have been here for near­ly a decade — and I know many peo­ple that grew up in this town, and share the local accent– be they from his­pan­ic, black, or oth­er back­grounds. Does any­one dis­agree? Am I over­re­act­ing to a small bit in an oth­er­wise good review?

UPDATE: Ms. Zacharek kind­ly respond­ed to my let­ter:

Hi Ned — Thanks for your let­ter. I actu­al­ly took great pains to make it clear that the clan­nish­ness shown in the movie isn’t total — the neigh­bor­hood of the movie seems to me very much like South Boston (though plen­ty of peo­ple are writ­ing in say­ing, “No, it’s Charlestown!” or “No, it’s Dorch­ester!”) I think the point is, there ARE pock­ets of Boston that are par­tic­u­lar­ly clan­nish, and Lehane’s sto­ry is pred­i­cat­ed on that.

And the L. Fish­burne line…I just went in and cut that from the piece, because it seemed to be a bone of con­tention with sev­er­al peo­ple. I lived in Boston for 15 years (it was only four years ago that I left), and I nev­er heard a per­son of col­or speak the way Fish­burne does. Then again, all of Boston is set up so that a white per­son (like me) nev­er needs to come into con­tact with a per­son of col­or unless he or she makes a great effort to do so. So it’s entire­ly pos­si­ble that there are African Amer­i­cans in Boston who speak like Mark Wahlberg and I just nev­er heard them. In any event, it did seem like a mis­guid­ed act­ing choice to me.

Any­way, thank you again for tak­ing the time to write in with your thought­ful com­ments, and best wish­es –

Stephanie Zacharek

I’m hum­bled that she respond­ed so gen­er­ous­ly, but now that I think about it, I’m feel­ing a bit like the PC Police. I didn’t want her to self-cen­sor her­self, but I thought that I should say some­thing.

3 Responses to “Larry got it Right in Mystic River”


  • If only we could get respons­es from ANY author. Of course, then they wouldn’t have time to actu­al­ly write.

  • what’s up with the suck­ahs site?!!
    haven’t been updat­ed for ages!!!!!

  • I have to agree that I nev­er heard a black per­son in Boston speak with that strong accent. I lived there for 20 years and had plen­ty of inter­ac­tion with all races. The accents are very localized–kids don’t pick up their accents from teach­ers, they learn to speak at home. The thick­est Boston accents come from the blue col­lar white com­mu­ni­ties. Upper mid­dle class com­mu­ni­ties and african amer­i­can areas have no detectable accent (at least in the drop­ping and adding of the let­ter R).

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