Posted by Richard Harland Smith on November 11, 2012
When TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was released to cinemas at Christmastime 1962, the Civil Rights movement was still young enough that Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were all still alive. Also still living were such future martyrs to the American Civil Rights Movement as Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair (young parishioners of Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church, killed by a bomb blast on September 15, 1963) and James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwermer (civil rights workers murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi on June 21, 1965 by members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan). I wonder now, as I have in years past, if any of these people saw TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD before they fell victim to bigotry, intolerance, and a paradoxically church-nurtured inclination towards evil. I guess I’d like to think they did. I’d like to think the film gave them hope. I can’t say with any certainty that these people had hope in their hearts at the time of their deaths but I know that all of them were where they were and doing what they were doing when they were so cruelly cut down because they were hopeful and because they wanted to inspire hope in others.
Assassinated slightly less than a year after the general release of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, US President John F. Kennedy had championed legislation that would survive him as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was put forward to strengthen the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which assured in the aftermath of the Civil War equal rights to all Americans, even to former slaves who had been denied that status by the Dred Scott Decision. (An earlier civil rights act, signed into law in 1875 by President Ulysses S. Grant, proved largely unenforceable during the Reconstruction and was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1883 as unconstitutional.) Obviously, given the horrific acts of violence and domestic terrorism that followed in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this historic piece of legislation was slow to change popular opinion. Nearly a half century later and we’re still stepping on hot spots of racial intolerance (note the “Put the White back in the White House” and “Don’t Re-Nig” tee shirts that appeared during this year’s Presidential election) — which only proves what a forward-looking and gutsy piece of filmmaking was TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD fifty years ago. Bracingly frank, the film centers on the trial of black man in Maycomb, Alabama, in 1932 for allegedly raping the daughter of a white sharecropper, as well as on the the homelife of his court-appointed defense attorney, a widowed lawyer raising two young children alone. Based on the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee, the film is not about race relations, per se, but race relations do sit at the back of the story throughout and step forward for a commanding courtroom scene that occupies much of the film’s second act, pointing an often bittersweet recollection of arguably simpler times towards the categorization of genuine, unendurable, almost operatic tragedy. And yet, if TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD were only about race relations in America, were only about that court trial and its terrible resolution, only about intolerance and ignorance, only about wrong and right, then we likely would not be celebrating the film’s golden anniversary in such a major way. It would instead sit alongside GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT (1947) and A PATCH OF BLUE (1965) and other well-meaning, humane, and correct films that nonetheless feel obligatory rather than essential.
Pitched as a memory piece, the recollections of a woman (the voice of Kim Stanley) who grew up poor in the Deep South during the Depression, TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD is bracketed by expressions devotion — at the beginning, for a time and a place that no longer exist, and at the end with the remembrance of acts of kindness that endeavored to scratch some measure of right out of a terrible injustice. The brilliance of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is that it does not foreground love, does not make of it a fetish as do so many sentimental films, but instead locates it within a constellation of associated emotions — and none more crucial to the narrative than shame… the shame of a broken farmer (Crahan Denton) who must pay off an entailment for services rendered by lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) with produce from his fields rather than the cash he does not have, the shame of the summer visitor (John Megna) who must invent an imaginary father of great wealth and accomplishment to replace the one he never knew, the shame of angry old Nathan Radley (Richard Hale) over the existence of his “maniac” son Arthur (Robert Duvall, in his film debut), the shame of decent Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) for being accused falsely of a sex crime by the daughter (Collin Wilcox Paxton) of a white sharecropper (James Anderson) and made to stand trial in front of his fellow citizens and the congregation of his own church, the shame of Maycomb sheriff Heck Tate (Frank Overton) at being unable to protect innocent people… and ultimately the shame of Atticus Finch who, for all his intelligence, courage, and dedication to fairness, realizes in one awful moment that the values of respect and decency that he has instilled in his young son (Phillip Alford) and daughter (Mary Badham) are too often not recognized, valued, or repaid by the real world.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD unreels as a series of revelations — some big, some small — that culminate in a devastatingly acute understanding of people, their dreams, their frustrations, failures, and motivations — a sensitivity that goes much deeper toward addressing the root of prejudice than finger-pointing or grand statements about the way things should be. Much of the credit goes, of course, to source novelist Harper Lee, as well as to writer Horton S. Foote, who adapted the material. One walks away from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD with a feeling of intense gratitude, not only to the authors and to director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan J. Pakula for taking a chance on material that had no particular guarantee of being big box office (which it was) but to the cast as well. It’s easy to be thankful to Gregory Peck, Phillip Alford, John Megna, Brock Peters, Robert Duvall, and the wonderful Mary Badham because the characters they play are so rich, so nuanced, so real and so good for this world but one even feels a debt of thanks to the actors who had to play the bad guys — James Anderson (compare this role to his turn as a white supremacist in Arch Oboler’s FIVE), William Windom (as a detestable prosecuting attorney), and Collin Wilcox Paxton (whose deeply injured Mayella Violet Ewell is more to be pitied than despised) — their presence gives the fictional Maycomb County depth and shadow. A number of utility players are also indispensable, among them veteran character actor Paul Fix who communicates his disgust with the injustice heaped upon Tom Robinson with body language and stoic silence (but, oh, the way he slams the door on his way out of the courtroom!) and Frank Overton, whose speech to Peck at the end of the film has become, in my old age, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD‘s defining scene.
In its final frames, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD reminds us that we take away from this life what is left us, what others impart onto us (be those things material or inspirational) and what we are able to salvage for ourselves from what we have lost. Elmer Bernstein’s lyrical score — one of the most knee-bucklingly wistful and haunting compositions ever run behind a motion picture — comes close to being a character in and of itself (how fitting it is entirely absent from the 40 minute courtroom scene), walking with us as these events unfold and leaving us bereft at parting. (Hand on heart, I’m all but crying into my own mouth just thinking about it.) Made in the 60s, set in the 30s, but just as relevant in the 21st Century as it was 50 years ago, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is an uncommonly wise motion picture that never mistakes topicality for personality, and a time capsule reflecting days gone by that, upon opening in the present day, hits you with an unexpected breath of fresh air.
Later this week I’ll be writing about TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD‘s unintentional endowments to the horror genre. Stay tuned!
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