Up until now, novelist Walter Mosley has ranked among those very few Americans older than 35 who've never seen John F. Kennedy's head explode. That's about to change.
Sliding into a front-row seat at the Carolina Theater, in Durham, N.C., Mosley is upbeat, awaiting his first glimpse of the historic Zapruder Film, Abraham Zapruder's legendary few seconds of accidental footage, graphically capturing the bloody assassination of JFK in Dallas in 1963. The still-shocking footage is being shown this morning as part of Duke University's annual Double Take Documentary Film Festival, an international gathering of documentarians and fans of "reality-based moviemaking." Well, it doesn't get more real than this.
The lights dim. The screen bursts into light, revealing, in silent, grainy black-and-white, the soundless approach of the presidential motorcade. There's an audible intake of air in the theater, as the audience holds its collective breath. Kennedy's open-top vehicle glides into view. Sitting beside Jacqueline Kennedy, the first lady, JFK waves to the assembled crowd. Suddenly, he leans over, clutching his throat.
"Was that it?" Mosley whispers, then flinches as the president is struck by a bullet in the skull. As Kennedy falls forward, Jackie frantically crawls out over the back of the car, pleading for assistance. The motorcade continues to roll along, as if nothing has happened, and finally disappears from view. The screen goes black, accompanied by a vast release of breath all around the room.
"That was kind of disturbing, wasn't it," remarks Mosley a few minutes later, as we emerge from the theater in search of breakfast. "It's weird that I never saw that before. Back then I wouldn't have wanted to see it and, later on, we were never in the same place at the same time, me and that piece of film."
Now based in New York, Mosley is the award-winning author of more than a dozen books, including Devil in a Blue Dress (the basis of the Denzel Washington film of the same name, and the first in a series of Easy Rawlins mysteries), along with the groundbreaking science-fiction thriller Blue Light. Part storyteller, part philosopher, part moralist, Mosley has made a career of wrapping up keen cultural observations in the entertaining skins of numerous popular genres.
"It's interesting, you know, the Kennedy assassination — I don't think it means a whole lot to me now," he tells me, after we've found a table in the restaurant of a nearby hotel.
"At the time Kennedy was assassinated, we all compared it to Lincoln's death. We thought it would have the same historical impact, but it doesn't seem to have. Lincoln pervaded history for 100 years, because of his assassination. I don't think you can prove that Kennedy's death really changed anything."
"But I know plenty of people," I argue, "who look at Kennedy's murder as the moment that American idealism was killed forever."
"But Kennedy's death was only part of that," Mosley replies. "There was Vietnam and all the riots on campuses, and then Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. America's loss of innocence would have occurred whether or not JFK died."
We spend the next few minutes trying to list the other American presidents who died in office.
"I have to reach to remember McKinley," Mosley admits, "who I think was killed in 1901. But who were the others? Garfield?"
"What was Garfield's first name?" I ask.
"I don't remember," he replies. "But I think Garfield was killed in office. I think Lincoln was the first. Garfield was the second. McKinley was the third."
"So Kennedy was the fourth?" I surmise. "Didn't some president die from drinking a cold glass of milk on a hot day?"
"I thought it was from eating bad shellfish on a boat in Alaska," Mosley counters, seriously. "But I can't remember which president. See, look at this conversation. All this history gets tainted. We barely remember the names of the assassinated. It's like a good trivia question. I think Kennedy will be one of those trivia questions that only hardened historians will remember."
"I can't tell if you think this is a good thing or a bad thing," I observe. "How important are the little details of history?"
"Good question," Mosley replies. "I've asked kids, 'Who was Martin Luther King?' and they say, 'He was the first black president.' I think about it and I say, 'Hmmm. I guess that's good in a way that they'd think that, even if it's wrong.'"
"Because it shows there's a level of acceptance for the idea of a black man in the White House?" I ask.
"Exactly,'" Mosley nods. "If they think it's already been done, they might vote for another one when they're old enough to vote.
"You know," he says, returning to our original point of discussion, "the Zapruder Film, as a piece of filmmaking, is even a little metaphorical. You see the police coming around the corner on their motorcycles. Then you see the most powerful man in the country, the prince, roll into view with his princess sitting next to him — and he's shot down in broad daylight. Bam.
"And it's still a mystery!" he continues, throwing up his hands. "It's a mystery! That's kind of wonderful. In a way, the Zapruder Film is a marvelous symbol of what living in America is like. That there are things going on here that we don't get.
"We sit here, in America, and we look around saying, 'What's happening? Why can't my kids get good jobs? Why can't my kids buy a house and have a good life? Why is there homelessness? Why, when I go to a hospital, do they not give me the best available treatment?'
"There are reasons, of course," Mosley allows, "but we can't understand them. This film speaks to all that. It's a symbol of obfuscation. We live in a country where nothing is ever made clear. We're being messed with, but who do we blame?
"So the Zapruder Film is like the beginning of a story with no satisfactory ending. And if that isn't our lives in a nutshell, I don't know what is."