Sunday, June 21, 2009
To Kill a Mockingbird -- principles over prejudice
Director: Robert Mulligan, 1962.
Indiana Jones, James Bond, Ellen Ripley, Rocky Balboa. What do these characters have in common? They are all listed in the top 10 heroes of the last 100 years by the American Film Institute. But none of these was the greatest hero. So who topped the list? Atticus Finch the gentle lawyer at the center of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Finch is not only the greatest hero, but he is also a terrific father, one of the best in movie history. So it is most appropriate to consider him and this film on Father's Day 2009.
Mulligan's film is based on Harper Lee's 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning book. Set in 1932 small-town (Maycomb -- "a tired and sleepy town") Alabama, it is the story of two human mockingbird's Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) and Boo Radley (Robert Duvall in his debut film). Though told from the perspective of Scout (Mary Badham), a feisty 6-year-old tomboy, it is really the story of her father, lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) and his principled stand against intolerance and prejudice.
The film starts slowly with the adult Scout providing voice-over commentary reminscing on her youth. Days of summer when she played with her older brother Jem (Philip Alford) and the neighbor boy Dill (John Megna). Even then, these kids showed a sense of ignorant intolerance about their particular boogeyman, Boo: "Boo only comes out at night when you're asleep and it's pitch-dark. When you wake up at night, you can hear him." Afraid of him, yet eager to see him, Mulligan racks up the tension as these kids sneak onto his front porch.
Juxtaposed against this story is the main plot, that of black man Robinson. He is accused of raping Mayella (Collin Wilcox). Finch is asked to defend him and agrees, much to the consternation of the town community. And his kids, Scout and Jem, initially take the brunt of the town's scorn. When Scout asks him why he is defending Robinson if no one wants him to, Finch responds, "For a number of reasons. The main one is that if I didn't, I couldn't hold my head up in town. I couldn't even tell you or Jem not to do somethin' again."
Finch has put his finger on a key principle that is declared in the Bible: "Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins" (Jas. 4:17). He knows what he must do, and though many try to dissuade him through various means, he will not sin. Further, he understands that he is an example to his children. With his wife dead, he realizes that his children may see no other role models to imitate. How often do we do the right thing, even if it is painful and brings with it suffering? Are we willing to set aside our creature comforts and do good? Or are we prepared to be passive sinners, leaving a trail of lost opportunities behind?
Atticus Finch is a true hero, a man who lived by his principles. He was also a man who knew how to relate to people. When Scout runs afoul of other school kids and gets into fighting, he tells her, "If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. . . . Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." This is great advice! Dale Carnegie said similar things in his famous book, "How to Win Friends and Influence People." But this is an ethic that is worth striving for. Looking at life from another's perspective lets us empathize and builds relational bonds, as Finch knew firsthand.
As the film progresses, the courtroom scene dominates. The all-white jury looks upon the black defendant and the guilty verdict is a foregone conclusion, so it seems. Robinson is on trial for his life and Finch gives him a stellar defense. But he is no idealist. In his closing statement, he declares to the all-male jury, "Now, gentlemen, in this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system -- that's no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality." This is an impassioned speech, not a prevarication, from a man of principle.
Peck brings an honesty and a true sense of decency to this role. It is the one he is most remembered for. Indeed, it is the role for which he won his only Oscar (Best Actor). And in a touching twist, when Peck died in 2003, Brock Peters delivered the eulogy for the man who "defended" him in court in this film.
At its heart, Mockingbird brings to the forefront the intolerance and prejudice birthed by fear and ignorance. It highlights how this can occur for both young and old -- in the persons of the boogeyman and the black man. The children were afraid of Boo, and spread malicious rumors about him. The townsfolk were bigoted against blacks, and spread malicious "truth" about Robinson. These two sides of intolerance juxtapose to frame Mockingbird.
Despite the prejudice of the town community, Finch's speech echoes the true ethics of the Bible. God created man and woman in his image (Gen. 1:26). There is no inferiority in being female. All humans are imago dei. Further, Paul affirms the equality of all people in respect to redemption in Jesus: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:29). Equality is a true and righteous ethic. We should not practice prejudice either explicitly, via racism, nationalism, etc, or implicitly in how we reward or punish others.
This brings us to the title of the film and book. What does it mean? Finch (whose name is avian), says to his children at the dinner table, talking about shooting birds: "it was a sin to kill a mockingbird. . . . Well, I reckon because mockingbirds don't do anything but make music for us to enjoy." Mockingbirds are defenseless, they do no harm, and they try do good. The two mockingbirds in this film, Boo and Robinson, meet these criteria. It is a sin to kill them.
Who are the mockingbirds in our lives? How are we treating them? Have we grasped the enormity of the sin of killing a mockingbird? If not, watch this film. It is a classic!
Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs
at 7:00 AM