Wednesday, April 18, 2012

To Kill a Mockingbird (Muilligan. 1962)

"You can shoot all the blue jays you want, but it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

To Kill a Mockingbird is, maybe more so than any other movie, an inspiring encapsulation of a romanticized "simpler time" in the American South. Based on the enormously famous novel by Harper Lee, the film focuses on a white family in a prejudice small town in Alabama. I just recently had the privilege of watching the 50th Anniversary showing of the film on the USA Network and that experience reminded me why it is such a classic.

Before the movie began, the at-home audience was treated by a short introduction by the current President of the United States – Barack Obama. This alone should show you the importance of a movie like To Kill a Mockingbird. I feel safe saying that you will never see a United States President giving a nationally televised introduction to Billy Madison (1995). In his speech, President Obama praised the film by saying that it brought to life “courage”, “conviction” and that it showed the American people the importance of doing “what is right”. He also praised the character of Atticus Finch by calling him “one of the greatest heroes in American cinema”.

As a child, I was confused by Atticus. I was raised in a professional wrestling-loving household. Therefore, my experiences with good and evil usually ended with the good guy on top. Nobody could tarnish the tough machismo of Stone Cold Steve Austin or Hulk Hogan. These men were my heroes. Atticus was beatable. He seemed almost too human for the screen. And then he jobbed, if you will, to the bad guy in the courtroom. I could not help but wonder how losing made a man such an inspiration.

Fast-forward about 10 years and Atticus Finch is now one of my all time favorite fictional characters in any form of media. A lawyer, Finch agrees to defend an obviously innocent African American man, Tom Robinson, against a malicious and fabricated rape case. A white girl, Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox), was severely beaten by her father after she tried to seduce the black Robinson. Though this is made obvious to the audience very early on, the all white jury sees things differently and believes (or at least comes to the verdict) that Robinson must have raped and beaten her. How could a white woman be attracted to a black man? In Depression-era Alabama? That is unheard of…

Tom Robinson is a character that singlehandedly raises social awareness with his limited, yet powerful, dialogue. Maybe his most memorable moment, Tom answers why he allowed Mayella to come onto him – “I felt sorry for her” he says. Keep in mind the time and place in which the movie is set, but that does not mean the line loses power to a 1962 or even a 2012 audience. When he looks at the all white jury and utters those words the conclusion of the trial can be seen written in the eyes of the jurors. How dare this man “feel sorry” for a white woman who is repeatedly beaten by her father to the point of submission?

Of course, we all know how the trial ends. Tom is wrongfully found guilty. His defender, Atticus Finch, has lost the case that he ever so bravely accepted. This heart-wrenching moment culminates with all of the African-American men and women in the balcony seats standing with respect for Atticus' effort. It is in this moment that we are treated to the famous scene of Peck’s Atticus walking out of the courtroom to a silent ovation. The reverend of the black community looks down at Atticus’ daughter, Scout, and lovingly calls her by her real name – “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passing”. I have to admit, I immediately felt my eyes swelling up with tears during this moment. It is raw, sad, tragic and yet overwhelmingly inspirational. Atticus is not ready to give up on Tom’s case. Sadly, Tom dies before any attempt can be made at an appeal.

No, Atticus Finch does not win his court case, but he is still a hero. A hero is a man who fights evil even against devastating odds. That is Finch. To Kill a Mockingbird uses Finch as an example of the right way to act. He is noble man who, without powers, fights injustices in the world. The character was named the #1 greatest hero in American film by the American Film Institute, and though that decision was controversial it also proved that a man can make an impact with something other than his testosterone.

To Kill a Mockingbird does not only serve as a compelling courtroom drama, but it also centers around young children. Scout is the tough, tomboy daughter of Atticus. She is vastly ahead of her classmates in subjects like reading, yet is prone to throwing punches at the drop of a hat. Mary Badham was, obviously, just a child when she portrayed Scout on the screen. But her performance is seeping with inspiration. Scout has a surface level toughness about her, yet she also seems fragile and naive. I mean, she is being played by an Oscar nominated 10 year old, but the fragility still aluminates from her body language and voice.

In one of the film’s least-believable moments, Scout is able to stop a lynch mob with her child-like naiveté. Honestly, this may be the ONE scene in the film that threw me off. I am supposed to believe that, in Depression-era Alabama, a young girl could shame an entire town of racist whites out of the lynching of a black man accused of interracial rape? C’mon, Harper Lee! That is the romantic “simpler time” I referred to earlier.

It would be silly to write about To Kill a Mockingbird without mentioning the young Robert Duvall as the mysterious, and seemingly very violent, Boo Radley. Boo is the center of the “coming of age” subplot as the children speculate over his gruesome appearance. It was said that Boo’s father chained him to the bed to keep him from acting out. He also was forced into confinement by his parents at some point. None of these claims are ever verified in the film, but they are also the claims of young, bored children in a pre-internet age. Stories make life interesting with the ending of each story serving as a resolution. Boo gets his resolution in a moment that is both confusing and strangely rewarding.

All in All, To Kill a Mockingbird has become a timeless film. The characters are rich with meaning, the battle lines between races are boldly drawn and the musical score is inspirational and moving. Being released in 1962, the film directly predates the turbulent Civil Rights Movement and has been made a staple in the decade’s viewing library. It is an incredibly important film that each person involved should be proud of…

To Kill a Mockingbird: A

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