This movie from 1962 was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won five including Best Actor for Gregory Peck (Atticus Finch) and Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Mary Badham (Scout). It was also nominated for five Golden Globes and won three including, again, Best Actor in a Drama for Gregory Peck, and Best Motion Picture Drama. It brought to life the characters from Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name, To Kill a Mockingbird.
For many, Gregory Peck’s portrayal of small-town Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch represents what is quintessentially good about America at a time when America didn’t seem to have a lot to be proud of, particularly in the southern states in their treatment of blacks. To have a peace-loving man who wants his children to grow up knowing that courage doesn’t mean having a gun in your hand represent a black man accused of raping a white lady in a court of law, simly threatened a whole way of life. At a time when the Ku Klux Klan marched openly, southern governors faced news cameras declaring “segregation forever”, and blacks were beaten or hung for being bold with a white person, it took a great deal of courage to publish the book, let alone make this movie. It is a movie that is cherished by millions, and for extremely personal reasons that are quite probably each unique.
One of the most powerful scenes in the movie is a bit different than in the book. Atticus goes to visit the Robinsons (Tom Robinson is the black man tried for rape) and Jem (played by Phillip Alford) and Scout are with him in the car. They wait while Atticus goes inside and Ewell (the white man accusing Tom of raping his daughter) shows up. Jem asks Tom’s son to go inside and get his dad. There is a very tense confrontation that Jem watches in fear and amazement as his dad turns the other cheek. After, Atticus asks Jem to stay and watch over Scout while he takes their cook, Cal, home. Jem is willing but very soon neighbourhood noises have him spooked and we can clearly see how affected he is by the evening’s events.
Two other very powerful scenes happen in the town square. Atticus expects a mob to show up to drag Tom from the jail. He takes a lamp and extension cord from home and sets them up in front of the jail, and sits down to read and wait for them. If you haven’t seen the movie (it’s free on YouTube) or read the book, I’m not going to give away what happens, but it’s an amazing scene. The last is at the end of the trial when all but Atticus have left the downstairs, and all the blacks who attended are still in the upstairs gallery where Scout, Jem, and Dill have been watching the trial. As Atticus begins to leave the courtroom, all of the blacks stand up out of respect. Jem and Dill do as well. The Rev. Sykes (Bill Walker) tells Scout, who has been sitting on the floor looking down between the railings, “stand up. Your daddy is passing.” It is this voluntary respect that is so moving, and so unlike the token respect given on demand to the whites who don’t return that respect.
Some of the hoopla about the release of the sequel book, Go Set a Watchman (which was actually written before Mockingbird), is the fear that Atticus will be shown in a different light as Jean Louise, now 26 years old, returns home to confront her father about some of his beliefs, and some of the laws and the southern way of life, that he will no longer be the idolized figure he is in Mockingbird. Life, and fiction, don’t always turn out the way we would wish, but it doesn’t change the way things are. Read both books; watch the movie. Be enriched! * * * * *