Does To Kill a Mockingbird (1962; dir. Robert Mulligan), one of the most popular and revered of American films, show its age? Based on the novel by Harper Lee widely taught in virtually every American high school, the film has been seen by virtually everyone. When I polled students in a college film and literature class recently to find out how many were seeing the film for the first time, only two hands went up. Popularity and exposure are no reasons to dismiss a film. Indeed they may be signs of its centrality as a representation of crisis in the nation’s historical experience. They may also be signs that in helping its audience understand a shared moment it may also have obscured certain realities of that moment. Forty years ago films such as To Kill a Mockingbird might play on the local television channel once in a year, and if you were lucky enough to know the film was scheduled to be shown, you could watch it. Opportunities to see your favorite film were infrequent. Today, with cable channels, Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, video rental stores, and other sources, it is easy to find that favorite film and to watch it over and over and over, or in the case of high school and college classrooms, to have it shown to you over and over and over. Seen too often, even the greatest works lose their luster. Familiarity breeds contempt, or at least indifference.
The film version of To Kill a Mockingbird was released when the civil rights movement was fairly young. Desegregation was underway in some states, and still being resisted in others. Protests, sit-ins, lawsuits, marches—these were all the landmark identifiers of a tumultuous time. Passions and opinions were heated, divisive, hostile, and sometimes violent. To Kill a Mockingbird offered welcome shelter from the tumult. Set in a small Alabama town of the 1930s, it envelops its characters and readers in a warm and supportive community. Children play on the streets and range across the neighborhood even at night. Neighbors support one another. The interactions we see among social classes and between the races are amicable. Partially this is because we experience the film from a child’s point of view, a child who is the daughter of a Southern lawyer who teaches his children egalitarian attitudes. Partially also it is because the film is told from a middle-class white point of view, insulated to an extent from social and racial conflict. Finally, it is because class and racial lines in the town are clearly demarcated. Residents of Macomb know their place and seem content to occupy it without chafing against the boundaries. The conflict that does occur happens when people on the margins, people who worry over maintaining the boundaries of their own social and racial categories, transgress, or fear that someone has transgressed. No doubt there is much more discord and unhappiness in Macomb than the young narrator Scout is aware of, and the film in part records her gradual education in the way her world really is.
To the adults of Macomb, the social and racial boundaries are clear enough. They accept them because they have done so for generations. They live in a cultural inertia, immovably fixed in their positions because no one or no event has ever prompted them into motion. From Scout’s vantage point, nothing makes sense and everything makes sense in Macomb. The events of the film are a learning experience for her and her brother Jem: they learn their father is a man with some real talents (sharpshooting, for instance), that some people judge others purely on the basis of skin color, that right and justice do not always prevail, that personal and moral responsibility may entail personal suffering, that some men are by nature bad. But it is Scout’s vantage point, and the more general vantage point she shares with brother Jem and their friend Dill, that envelops the film with nostalgic innocence. In a way the film is a childhood idyll, a respite from the realities of the world of 1962. Atticus Finch, the self-sacrificing lawyer of virtue and integrity, is part of this idyllic constructed world.
The placid relations between whites and blacks in the 1930s era Macomb on the one hand must be meant as a counterpoint to the more disturbed relations of the late 1950s and 1960s. Yet it also is meant as a context, a parallel narrative to that of twenty-five years after the time of the story. In essence To Kill a Mockingbird argues for the importance of social and racial equality and also reflects a particular theory of social change. The argument for equality is irrefutable. The theory of social change is problematic, a product of the era of the novel and film, of how many enlightened Southern liberals—and American liberals—felt about the movement for civil rights in the 1950s.
As in Intruder in the Dust, To Kill a Mockingbird views the African American community of the respective small towns as circumscribed and threatened by a hostile white community. Racist attitudes are so thoroughly ingrained that any behavior by a black man or woman that threatens the stability of the community racial and social structure is met with swift retribution. Vigilantism, lynching, are real possibilities. In Intruder a black man is framed for murder and a mob of white men gather at the county jail intent on carrying out their own form of justice. In To Kill a Mockingbird a mob of men try to push their way into the Macomb jail where Tom Robinson, accused of assaulting a white woman, is held. Although both Lucas and Tom are presented as respectable men, in different ways, both are treated as victims. Lucas’ stubborn arrogance infuriates every white person around him. Even so three white citizens band together to try to save him. Tom Robinson, less problematic than Lucas from the town’s perspective, is shown as unsophisticated but hardworking, honest, and compassionate—in many ways distinctly unthreatening. Yet when he’s accused of rape, all the black community can do for him is support his wife and worry. The white community never doubts his guilt—just as it never doubts his white victim’s accusations. It takes the efforts of a white man, Atticus Finch, Tom’s lawyer, to stand up for and defend him.
Both films show enlightened white people as the agents of change for a black community that cannot bring about change on its own. It is in this light that Malcolm Gladwell in “Atticus Finch and the Limits of Southern Liberalism” takes on this hero.[i] Although he is writing about the novel, Gladwell’s argument can apply to the film as well. Gladwell compares Finch to 1950s-era Alabama governor Big Jim Folsom. Both believed, says Gladwell, in the equality of the races as a matter of heart and mind. But when it came to bringing about social change, to altering the system that relegated blacks to secondary status, neither was willing to go that far. When Atticus shows courtesy and respect for the old woman down the street who calls him a “nigger lover,” or for Walter Cunningham who leads the mob at the jail, he does so not as an agent of the law or a fomenter of change but as a member of their community. Different people have different beliefs, and all need to be tolerated. Gladwell takes especial exception to Atticus’ defense of Tom Robinson. Because the case for Robinson’s innocence is weak, Atticus argues for innocence by attacking the rape victim, impugning her character, and implying her incestuous relationship with her father. The novel more clearly makes the allegation of incest, while the film merely hints at it. Atticus thus substitutes class prejudice and character judgments for hard and clear evidence. Gladwell writes, “Finch wants his white, male jurors to do the right thing. But as a good Jim Crow liberal he dare not challenge the foundations of their privilege. Instead, Finch does what lawyers for black men did in those days. He encourages them to swap one of their prejudices for another.”
Neither the novel nor the film is a treatise in law or Southern politics. Harper Lee was not a lawyer (though her father was) nor a sociologist. She wrote as a liberal Southerner of her time. The film suggests that the case for Robinson’s innocence is strong, but as Gladwell suggested of the novel it also shows Atticus attacking Mayella’s character and arguing that she is being manipulated by someone, clearly her father. Why does Atticus do this? (I am thinking now purely in terms of the film). Atticus is clearly convinced of Tom’s innocence. He uses every reasonable strategy he can think of to defend him. Even when he believes he will lose the case in Macomb, he knows he has a “good chance” on appeal. He argues on the basis of Tom as a family man, a virtuous church-going man, a hard worker, a man with compassion, and a man with a withered right hand incapable of doing injury to the left side of Mayella’s face. And he appeals to the higher natures of the men on the jury (who are not swayed). When he loses the case, he understands that the white jurors could not bring themselves to find Robinson innocent against the testimony of a young white woman. That is, he knows he lost the case to culturally ingrained racism. But he trusts in the efficacy of the law and believes that at some point it will find in Tom’s favor. Whether this will happen we never know because Tom tries to escape from the deputy sheriff who is transporting him to jail, and is killed. This happens off screen, and Atticus seems to accept the story at face value as true. There is at least the possibility that Tom was killed intentionally rather than in the course of an escape attempt. In any case, Tom is dead and the law’s efficacy remains untested.
It may be a product of the film’s dated racial liberalism that the law and Atticus’ skills as a lawyer are never really the issue. The real issue is his moral courage in this case that puts him at odds not only with individuals (and mobs) in the community but with the fundamental principle of white supremacy that undergirds Macomb, Alabama, and the rest of the South. By championing Tom’s innocence, which he believes in both on the basis of evidence as well as personal conviction, he does challenge the racial codes of the South. He puts himself and his children at risk, he is criticized and ridiculed by people in the town, Bob Ewell repeatedly threatens him, and in the end his children are physically attacked. The fact that Atticus is a lawyer, apparently a good one, who has difficulty earning enough of a living to make ends meet, suggests that this is not the only unpopular case he has taken, that he often allows the poor and downtrodden to pay him in immaterial ways, and that this is why the judge comes to him with the case in the first place. (The judge himself believes Tom is innocent. He believes Atticus will do what is right). The film adds to these reasons the fact that Atticus is a widowed father trying to do his best to raise his children without assistance (of course, this discounts the black housekeeper, Calpurnia). He is lonely, it is hinted. And Maudie Atkinson from across the street may be a future helpmeet the film suggests (in a way the novel does not).
Basically, To Kill a Mockingbird presents Atticus as a virtuous man rather than as a racial change-maker. He believes in the law, in the principle that “all men are created equal,” and is willing to stand up for his beliefs. He’s not swayed by social pressures, threats, or other considerations. This is the basis of the argument the film makes for his stature as a hero.
[i] The New Yorker, August 10, 2009.