Two years ago (August 21, 2015: https://baltimoreblackwoman.com/2015/08/21/atticus-finch-is-not-a-racist-but-hes-not-the-true-hero-of-the-story-either/), I published a double book review of Harper Lee’s only published novels, To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) and Go Set a Watchman (GSAW). Since then, I’ve received a few interesting comments and questions about the review that produced engaged, thoughtful conversations, for which I am grateful.
But on Monday night, September 11, 2017, I saw the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird in a movie theatre. I have seen the film many times—but only on television. On the big screen, the major themes of the story were brought to life in a dramatic way, leading me to reread my original review. It troubled me to consider that I did not even scratch the surface of the importance of TKAM and GSAW. I’m afraid this updated review won’t, either. Yet, I feel a need to try again.
Let me note here that Monday night’s screening of TKAM was a one-night-only presentation co-sponsored by Loyola University in Baltimore and The Senator Theatre. Since I have no connection to Loyola, I hope that there is some follow-up with the mostly white student/parent/professor audience, because this 50-something-year-old story is still relevant to our times. I should also note that I still stand by many of the points of the original review, which I now see as more of an academic/structural review of Ms. Harper’s works.
Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.
In my original review, I stated the following:
“The book brilliantly lays out the roots of the White American South of the 1930s from the perspective of an exceptional little White girl growing up in a small town that was steeped in its 19th Century worldview, culture, and history but was beginning to face the changes being wrought by the greater 20th Century American society [economic, social, racial, and moral changes].”
Let me say this again, in plain English: Both the book and the movie versions of TKAM peel away layers of racism, classism, and other isms that the United States—especially the South—have been grappling with since the birth of this nation, and that still exist today. This, I believe, is the primary reason this work has resonated with reading and movie-going audiences for over 50 years. Times and circumstances may change, but the issues don’t. However, for history’s sake, we still need to be mindful of the era in which the book/movie takes place.
It’s 1932 in a hardscrabble, bucolic, segregated Southern town. The Civil War had occurred “only” 70 years before, but attitudes about the Southern ethos, especially the economy—including Black labor (transformed from slavery to crop sharing)—had not changed much. There’s even an old woman who’d survived the Civil War in this town. These folks had also gone through The Great Depression, and they had little to show for any of it except their Southern pride. [You could skip ahead to any decade since the 1930s—say, 1962—and still find these same issues brewing; only now, you’d have been through World War II and Korea, Brown v. Board of Education, and so on. Or you could skip ahead to today, with our disappearing industries, shaky employment prospects, at least in some sectors, etc. But all these situations have been, and continue to be, seen as eroding that Southern pride.]
In the middle of this hard-luck town sits lawyer Atticus Finch, a single (widower) father raising his two children, Scout (a tomboyish girl) and her older brother Jem (a dreamer and schemer), with the help of his trusted and respected Black housekeeper, Calpurnia. This family goes against the grain of the rest of the town, because Atticus is more educated, more objective, and, in fact, is the moral compass of the town. And the town respects Atticus. Even the town sheriff looks up to Atticus’ authority.
The crux of TKAM is the testing of Atticus’ moral compass in defending Black resident Tom Robinson against a false accusation of raping a White woman. To this day, this act is one of the cardinal “sins” of Black men against Whites. But Tom Robinson has the temerity to state in court that the only reason he [respectfully] reacted at all to the advances of the “victim” (by doing chores for poor Mayella who, in fact, was beaten up by her abusive White father) is that he pitied her. This was—and remains, in some quarters—the ultimate cardinal sin: that a Black man can be human enough to pity a White person for being in worse condition than he is.
In the film, Gregory Peck-as-Atticus Finch delivers a summation speech in the courtroom that stands as a powerful indictment of racism. Yet, despite this speech, and despite indisputable evidence to the contrary (the accused man has a useless left arm, and the beating of Mayella was forensically proven to have been done by her left-handed father), Tom Robinson is convicted by an all-White, male jury. [Sound familiar?] Yet, even the judge in the case is disgusted by this outcome; he slams the door after exiting the room.
As the shackled Tom Robinson [Why shackled? What threat does he pose?] is led out of the courtroom, Atticus Finch pleads with him to have hope, to be patient until his appeal.
But in the very next film scene, the sheriff informs Atticus that Tom Robinson is dead—killed in transport while “trying to flee” the wagon after an “incident.”
[You can flash forward to now, and remember the growing list of Black men and boys unjustly killed by “threatened” policemen or vigilantes—like Freddie Gray, Tayvon Martin, …or the 8-year-old biracial boy who just recently survived a lynching by some white teenagers who claimed to be “playing around”.]
When Atticus Finch decides to go to the Robinson home to inform family members of the tragic outcome, his son Jem (the dreamer and schemer) insists on accompanying him. As Finch enters the large home (a little bit ramshackle compared to those in the White side of town, but obviously filled with loving family and friends), Jem catches the eye of Tom Robinson’s son in a moment of pathos and, I believe, a genuine communication of sorrow between the two boys. [It must be remembered that despite the inequity of Finch referring to the Black residents by first names, while the Black residents call him Mr. Finch, Finch has consistently treated the Black residents with respect, and he’s taught Scout and Jem to do the same.]
The film reaches its guilt-ridding denouement months later, when the father of Mayella (the false victim of Tom Robinson’s imagined crime and the true victim of her father’s abuse) meets his just reward after trying to murder Jem and Scout as they return from a Halloween party at the local school: the monstrous father is killed by Boo Radley who, throughout the story, had been falsely portrayed as the town Monster.
This “simple” story has so much nuance—from the very names of the central characters and the title (bird names: Finch, Robinson, Mockingbird, etc.) to the archetypal characters (e.g., the monster, the moral compass; discussed in my previous review)—and raises so many questions and pent-up emotions that I can see myself revisiting it periodically for the rest of my days.
But as for the issue of Race in America, I believe that it is the Original Sin of our remarkable nation. And until this nation confronts this issue, we are doomed to re-fight The Civil War ad nauseum. Indeed, the fact that we are still fighting over Confederate monuments dedicated to the Losing Side—the Lost Cause of White Supremacy—means we still haven’t learned the lessons so eloquently spoken by the fictional Atticus Finch and the real-life heroes in the ongoing fight for Equality for All (MLK, RFK, and even LBJ, to name a few). And as for GSAW, I still believe that Atticus Finch Is Not a Racist!
I came upon an article today that I think addresses the issue of Race in America in its current iteration—a “black-and white” issue that is anything but—and which is central to both of Lee Harper’s works. It does so in a more succinct way than I can come up with: https://www.thenation.com/article/on-white-identity-politics-and-american-terrorism/.
Let me know what you think.