Blog Directory CineVerse: Why "Mockingbird" still matters

Why "Mockingbird" still matters

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Last week, our CineVerse film discussion group gave its verdict on To Kill a Mockingbird, which marks a 60th anniversary this month. Spoiler: The group loved it. For proof, read a summary of our major talking points gathered below and lend an ear to a recording of our group discussion (available here; note that the current episode of the Cineversary podcast, found here, also honors this film on its 60th birthday).

Has this picture stood the test of time? Why is it worth honoring 60 years after its release, and why and how does To Kill a Mockingbird still matter?

  • It’s one of the best films about serious adult matters ever told and shown from a child’s perspective, thanks to director Robert Mulligan adhering closely to the book by consistently presenting Scout and Jem’s point of view and keeping the camera at relatively low angles, often looking up and in awe of adults.
  • Likewise, the performances are among the finest and most believable of any child actors ever cast in a Hollywood film. Mary Badham as Scout (nine years old at the time), John Megna as Dill (also nine), and Philip Alford as Jem (around age 13) are each excellent in their roles. Interestingly, despite their fine acting, Badham and Alford didn’t parlay these performances into a long-running acting career.
  • It feels relevant and important today because more Americans in the 21st century have increasingly come to reckon with our nation’s shortcomings about racial relations and our problematic history of racial inequality. While Mockingbird has some elements modern audiences may consider troubling, including the concept of an impossibly perfect white savior and the fact that the black characters largely remain on the periphery, this is a morality tale that debatably hasn’t lost any of its power to remind viewers how challenging life proved for African-Americans at this time in history, and how truly segregated our country was.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird also persists as one of the finest and most faithful translations of a beloved and widely read novel ever made. Consider how often movie adaptations of books fail to live up to readers’ expectations or do justice to the quality of the source material. This is a rare but prime example of a film that could be equal to the book it is based on. Original authors are often dissatisfied with big-screen versions of their work, but Harper Lee expressed her delight with the finished film product.
  • Additionally, the opening title sequence is distinctive and different for an early 1960s film, showcasing close-up views of childhood objects, including crayons, jacks, coins, and figurines as well as quick sketches and colorings made by the hands of a youngster. Immediately, we are immersed in the imaginative world of a child, which sets the tone and the narrative expectations right from the start.
  • Lastly, the bygone milieu recreated, that of a small town in 1930s era Alabama, looks and feels authentic, thanks to the fine attention to detail in the areas of architecture, costumes, and visual elements emblematic of the Great Depression coupled with the crisp black-and-white canvas rendered expertly by cinematographer Russell Harlan.

What influence did this movie had on the cinema or filmmakers who may have been inspired by it?

  • The film version of Mockingbird was released at a time of strong racial tensions and before the passage of civil rights legislation. Although predecessors like The Jackie Robinson Story, and No Way Out in 1950, The Defiant Ones in 1958, and All the Young Men, and Sergeant Rutledge in 1960 tackled themes of racism, inequality, and segregation before Mockingbird’s release in 1962, the latter film proved especially controversial and eye-opening because it wasn’t afraid to revisit a time of rampant prejudice, discrimination, and violence in the American South and suggest highly sensitive concepts like falsely accusing a black man of attempting to rape a white woman.
    • Per film critic James Berardinelli: “The early '60s were a powder keg, with acts of bigotry and racial hatred peppering the evening news as the Civil Rights movement gained momentum. For a film as clear-eyed and unflinching as this one to arrive in theaters during such a turbulent period is nothing short of astounding. To Kill a Mockingbird confronts prejudice head-on, and illustrates that justice is not always color-blind. This is one instance when right does not triumph, and everyone in the audience is aware of it.”
  • While it’s difficult to definitively track the influence of Mockingbird on subsequent films, it likely made it easier for later movies to explore similar uncomfortable topics that were overdue for cinematic treatment. In the immediate years following this film, for example, we saw the release of several similar social message movies, many groundbreaking, such as Free, White, and 21, and Gone Are the Days! from 1963; Black Like Me, and Nothing But a Man in 1964; A Patch of Blue in 1965; and In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in 1967.
  • Films directly inspired by Mockingbird include Broken (2013) and Just Mercy (2019).

Regarding Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch, is this possibly the most perfect example of a role a Hollywood actor was born to play?

  • A major reason Mockingbird has remained evergreen is the exemplary portrayal by Gregory Peck. This is a textbook example of an actor born to play a role. The dignity, intelligence, grace, quiet strength, and restraint Peck imbues this part with help explain why he was a shoo-in to win the Academy award for best actor for his performance of Atticus Finch.
  • Harper Lee said: “That film was a work of art, and there isn’t anyone else who could play the part.” And Peck remarked in an interview: “I felt I could climb into Atticus’s shoes without any playacting, that I could be him.”
  • What has helped make this character so popular and indelible is that Atticus doesn’t pontificate, speechify, or come across in the least as self-righteous or superior, even though he is assumedly better educated, more articulate, and intrinsically smarter than just about any other character in the story. He’s also extremely likable because he isn’t an authoritarian patriarch, an overconfident or egotistical lawyer, or an easily flustered/overly emotional man. He demonstrates extreme patience and flexibility with his kids, the ability to turn the other cheek when insulted or challenged, and admirable humility among those who look up to him.
  • Peck’s look, voice, and mannerisms are also impressive. The thespian was blessed with a strong chin that projects confidence, penetrating eyes that ferret out the truth, a deep, resonant voice that commands respect, and imposing stature (Peck was 6’3”) that gave him symbolic hierarchy over adjacent performers. And he was long considered one of the most handsome actors in Hollywood history.

What significant messages or themes from Mockingbird are worth examining?

  • The value of empathy. Atticus tells Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” The central message at the core of Mockingbird is that it’s important not to prematurely judge or condemn others – whether that means Tom Robinson, Boo Radley, or Scout’s schoolmate. By looking at matters from the other person’s perspective, especially those considered inferior by or outcast from society, we can avoid succumbing to mob mentality, groupthink, or rash actions.
  • Giving voice to the voiceless. Atticus is Tom Robinson’s defense attorney, but he also stands as an unofficial spokesperson of sorts for the African-American townspeople who are relegated to the upper gallery of the courthouse and discouraged from speaking out or objecting to their treatment by whites in this community. Likewise, Boo Radley utters no words, but Atticus, the sheriff, and Scout speak for him and come to his defense.
  • Coming of age and loss of innocence. This tale is primarily told from the point of view of Scout and Jem, two younger children who are taught strong values by their father and learn hard truths about life and flawed humanity over the course of about a year and a half. We see Scout begin her life as a school student, and she is quickly taught that empathy is the antidote to violence. Scout and Jem also discover how ugly and toxic racism is and how dangerous and evil some grownups can be. And all of the myths and legends they perpetuated about Boo Radley disappear once they learn how selfless, kind, protective, and misunderstood Radley truly is.
    • The kids come to realize that human beings are capable of both good and evil, that bias, hate, and lies can easily destroy the innocent, and that society has an often unfair pecking order that elevates some above others.
    • This loss of innocence theme is also tied to Atticus’ memorable words about how it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, with the bird in this context signifying innocent characters in the narrative like Tom Robinson and Boo Radley who don’t deserve to be silenced or die.
    • Recall, too, how Atticus tells Jem: "There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ‘em all away from you. That’s never possible." His children are beginning to understand the cruel and callous nature of some human beings, further proof of this transition away from the purity and simplicity of young childhood.
  • True leadership, as well as survivability, requires grace under pressure and a steady aim. Atticus’ hidden sharpshooting prowess, revealed when he kills the mad dog that endangers his family, is representative of his aptitude for zeroing in on and hitting a target, whether that be a literal or figurative target.
    • This act also symbolizes how Atticus wants to nullify an encroaching threat to his children and his town: literally, it’s a rabid canine, but figuratively the animals serves as foreshadowing for an even deadlier and more infectious evil—mob mentality driven by racism.

Despite the film’s widespread popularity and positive reviews, why have some have pointedly criticized the work as dated and racially problematic?

  • In his 2001 review, Roger Ebert wrote: ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ set in Maycomb, Alabama, in 1932, uses the realities of its time only as a backdrop for the portrait of a brave white liberal… It expresses the liberal pieties of a more innocent time, the early 1960s, and it goes very easy on the realities of small-town Alabama in the 1930s.” He adds that, during the sequence where Atticus drives out to inform Tom’s wife of her husband’s death, “The black people in this scene are not treated as characters, but as props, and kept entirely in long shot. The close-ups are reserved for the white hero and villain.”
  • Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris wrote in his 1963 review: “As usual, the Negro is less a rounded character than a Liberal construct, a projection of the moral superiority Negroes supposedly attain through their suffering and degradation…Brock Peters tries hard to break through the layers of moral whitewash, but he is finally smothered by Peck’s unctuous nobility.”
  • On the other hand, DVD Savant critic Glenn Erickson posited the following: “To Kill a Mockingbird actually plays better now than it did in 1962; although it sticks to the formula of appreciating the problems of minorities from a white perspective, it has a sensitivity uncommon even today. Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch may be a paragon of virtue but he's no superman, and the movie never stoops to easy emotional effects… Many 60s movies that 'took on' the civil rights issue now seem too preachy, or suffer from Stanley Kramer-itis, the illness that makes self-anointed do-gooders unduly proud of the rightness of their goals. Atticus Finch is personally committed to his beliefs, but he's not asking the world to see things his way anywhere except the courtroom. The movie doesn't pretend that his appeal to the decency of his peers will make a big difference on their deep-set prejudices. The black townfolk banished to segregated seats in the courtroom rise to show their respect for Finch, but no groundswell of emotion overturns the verdict. The script doesn't go for cheap effects or easily-bought epiphanies.”
  • One defense of Mockingbird from its detractors is that you have to ponder how the characters and events are conveyed through the eyes and recollections of Scout and Jem, a six-year-old and a 10-year-old, respectively. Scout in particular idolizes her father as a somewhat larger-than-life figure. It’s easier to accept, then, that while the children can be trusted as reliable narrators, the world and figures around them may be depicted as slightly exaggerated, which is perhaps why Atticus has such a robust white savior aura about him, why Ewell seems like the embodiment of the devil (not excusing his abhorrent nature), and why, possibly, the black characters are marginalized.
    • Paul Sherman of TCM wrote: “The movie is most of all about how Scout and big brother Jem have their eyes opened to the world around them, with the realization of racial injustice being just one part of that bigger scope.” Remember that it is Atticus who opens their eyes, so it makes sense that he would be given greater significance at the expense of the African-American characters.
  • Furthermore, the conclusion and aftermath of the trial are downbeat and stark. Tom is found guilty, Ewell gets away with the crimes of false accusation and beating his daughter, and we are told that Tom died trying to escape (when it’s easier to believe, in the 21st century, that Tom was secretly killed by the mob or the police while in custody). In other words, this story doesn’t attempt to soften the harsh racist realities of what living in a small town in the deep South must have been like for African-Americans during the Great Depression.
  • Additionally, how realistic would it have been for Harper Lee or Robert Mulligan to change the story and give more voice, presence, or screen time to any of the African-American characters? Again, if this is a somewhat subjective telling through Scout and Jem’s POV, it stands to reason that they would have pared down their memories of this age to their most essential truth: that their father was a hero and an important role model because he stood up for the innocent and disadvantaged. So it makes sense that Atticus commands the most attention in this story as a noble and valiant figure. The other reality is that the town is segregated, so Jem and Scout likely would not have had much interaction with African-American characters, other than the cook Calpurnia.
  • Lastly, albeit this story and film aren’t perfect, and it’s easier to poke holes in its good intentions 60 years later thanks to our increased intolerance of racism and a better understanding of race relations throughout American history, let’s not forget that this movie was a rare example in the early 1960s of a social message picture about discrimination. Even if Atticus Finch commands the spotlight at the expense of relatively voiceless black characters, the net sum gain remains substantial. At the very least, this film spoke to white audiences in the early 1960s about social inequality and how most black Americans couldn’t get a fair trial. Hopefully, it made many whites more aware of these injustices 60 years ago and continues to do so today. Put another way, the central message remains unimpeachable.

What is To Kill a Mockingbird’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • One of Mockingbird’s greatest gifts is that it serves as a familial wish-fulfillment vehicle for audiences, presenting many viewers with an ideal father they never had.
    • While he’s certainly not superhuman or flawless (remember, Atticus does wear glasses, he doesn’t keep the closest tabs on his kids, and he loses the trial), Finch possesses many of the traits, values, and behaviors that virtually anyone would want if they were designing the nearly perfect patriarch: patience, tolerance, inclusivity, warmth, courage, self-discipline, eloquence, decency, and integrity.
    • It’s little wonder, then, why Atticus Finch placed number one on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest film heroes a few years back, or why he was named the most inspiring character in literature according to a poll of UK adults taken in 2016. (For that matter, Harper Lee’s work was voted America’s best-loved novel in a 2018 PBS survey.)
    • Finch’s unflappable dignity coupled with Peck’s stoic good looks make it easy to understand why Atticus is the ultimate father figure to children everywhere, why men continually seek to model from his example, and why women get weak-kneed just thinking about him. The world would be a much better place if we all had just a little more Atticus in us.

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