Directed by Robert Mulligan
To Kill a Mockingbird announces itself before the film even begins. The grand Elmer Bernstein music, coupled with intimate close ups of trinkets that will gather meaning (but already have a great deal if you’re familiar with the book) throughout the film suggest something important, like the source text is the Bible itself or any other incredibly well-known material.
It’s as though the people who watch this film are assumed to have read the book first (having been published only two years prior), and the film counts on the book’s leg work to give you a connection to what you’re about to see onscreen. It’s like watching the first episode of season five of a show you love versus watching the pilot episode.
Robert Mulligan’s film feels like a greatest hits version of Harper Lee’s novel. We jump right in, following around young Scout, Jem and Dill as they enjoy the innocence of their 1930’s life in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama. Through their eyes we see the comings and goings of such an intimate community, where everyone has their quirks, but they’re all harmless.
We meet Mrs. Dubose, the poor Walter Cunningham and Bob Ewell, people who are stands ins for a greater cast of characters the film doesn’t quite run long enough to entertain. They represent the diversity of a community which isn’t all that diverse, but it’s all our young main characters know.
Scout and Jem are about to learn a harsh lesson about racism and the state of affairs in America. They are too young to understand what such hatred means or where it comes from, and it’s this youth which makes them able to question things the other characters, middle to old-age adults, have assumed for years.
The kids’ father, Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is a stoic lawyer who insists on doing right by his client. He is asked to represent a black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) accused of raping a young local girl, Mayella Ewell. Because of Tom’s skin color and the victim being white, he is immediately presumed guilty, and his chance of acquittal is slim to none.
The first half of the story concerns the kids slowly coming to terms with what Atticus is up against. They don’t see race in the same way the townsfolk do. It’s an issue which turns the quirky locals, like Walter Cunningham, into willing mob participants, suddenly fueled by an intolerable hatred.
The second half of the story, which I find to be much more graceful and compelling, sticks us in the courtroom as Atticus defends Tom. Scout, Jem and Dill will watch silently from the gallery, and for long stretches of a time they don’t utter a word.
Gregory Peck is the star here, delivering a six minute long monologue which sums of his feelings on race, equality and injustice, but Brock Peters and Collin Wilcox (as Mayella) have their moment to shine as well.
Their dialogue is taken just about straight from Harper Lee’s source material, and it is both unflinching and brutal, with the actors channelling some of that same passion as Marlon Brando in his best roles. They show a fiery, exhausted sense of emotion that you don’t often see in movies of this time period and which especially contrasts with Atticus’ stoicism.
The result is striking, and it’s certainly the shining moment of the film, the only part in which I found the translation from book to screen to be seamless. Much of the film relies on an uneven narration by adult Scout, filling in for the narration which carries us through the book. We’re meant to see the world through her eyes, and while this works in the book, it’s jarring in the movie.
Scout is the character with the most to learn in the film. Her early innocence is reflected in how she sees a mysterious neighbor, Boo Radley (Robert Duvall). Later, at the end of the story, Radley will return to the forefront as he proves himself to be much less sinister than they initially assume. He is the symbol of the lesson Scout has to learn within the film, as she’s finally able to see the bigger picture and follow her dad’s advice to see things through someone else’s eyes. It’s a way of describing clearly what she learns about Tom and the Maycomb population through Tom’s trial.
This all just makes for an awkward story structure. Scout has the most to learn, Atticus has the most to do, and Boo Radley proves to be the third act hero. Each character has a moment on the front lines, a moment in the shadow and a moment on the sidelines. At times they are active, invisible and silent observers from afar.
The goal of the film is to make us see the world through Scout, Jem and Dill’s eyes. Their innocence makes them see the 1930’s community with the same objectivity we might considering our place in the future (30-ish years at the time of the film’s release). The effect is similar to another movie I recently watched, 1988’s Mississippi Burning, about southern racism in 1964. Those two or so decades instill modern audiences with a drastically different perspective of the story’s events than the people in it.
So the story of To Kill a Mockingbird features a large boiling pot in the middle, in which fall the Ewells, Walter Cunningham and the rest of the Maycomb mob. They are like a case study in outdated thinking, hatred, racism, fear and the way certain modes of thinking die out over time.
Around this pot is Atticus and his children as well as us, the audience. We know how we feel going into the film. We know Atticus is the hero, his kids are more altruistic and innocent than they realize, and we know exactly who is wrong within the text.
It’s important, surely, because this was released in 1962, when race was still a tense, overt issue (not to say it isn’t anymore), something that would be important talking points in previous and subsequent presidential elections. It was a very political issue, something even candidates like JFK and Nixon would talk around in hopes of keeping the black vote but not alienating southern white voters. In the case of the 1960 election, Nixon was ahead of JFK in this arena until Bobby Kennedy persuaded his brother to get Martin Luther King Jr. released from prison following his arrest. This decision turned the tides and helped get JFK elected.
But the civil rights movement was still treated with arms outstretched. It was a political concern and as of yet not a human concern. Six years later King would be assassinated, and soon after that Bobby (an advocate of marginalized voters, at least in rhetoric) would be too.
So what’s striking about To Kill a Mockingbird is that I have to believe certain people left the theater cheering on Atticus and company but then returned to a life not comprehending their own role in perpetuating outdated, hatred rhetoric and subconscious lines of thinking. ‘THEY were racist, but things are different now,’ or something like that. It’s a line of thinking that surely followed certain segments of people who watched Mississippi Burning in 1988, half a decade or so before the Rodney King beating in the early 90s.
With each of these important films, and they were important, people were made to understand that something was a problem a couple decades before. The point is almost always that these things are still going on today. So when you see a film like 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, you can say ‘well thank god we’ve moved on from that ugly part of our history,’ but since then countless unarmed, often non-white citizens have been killed. Then you have all the hoopla over the anthem kneeling, and basically you’re left with stuff that I have to assume will be seen in a drastically different light twenty years from now.
So period piece, sci-fi and horror films are often the best illustrators of the problems in contemporary society. They illustrate issues by drawing attention to where we once were, where things could be headed at this rate (a lot of post-apocalyptic wastelands) and symbolic representations of current concerns. Examples of these three are 2017’s The Post (emphasizing the importance of freedom of the press today when certain news is deemed “fake” and other news is fake, by calling attention back to the courage of Kay Graham nearly 50 years ago), something like Jurassic Park (using dinosaurs and general sensationalism to point out man’s hubris as we become capable of greater technological advancements) and Get Out (which is pretty clear in how it depicts race and various forms of, to put it mildly, appropriation). Strangely enough, I think last year’s Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water, has a hand in all three genres as it conveys messages of otherness in the form of race, sexuality and even humanity.
Up Next: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Il Posto (1961), The Mechanic (1972)