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To Kill A Mockingbird

To Kill A Mockingbird

By Frances Taylor • July 16th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Universal Pictures

Original release: December 25th, 1962
Running time: 129 minutes

Director: Robert Mulligan
Writers: Harper Lee, Horton Foote

Cast: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Philip Alford, Frank Overton, Brock Peters, Collin Wilcox, James Anderson, Robert Duvall

To Kill A Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird, written by Harper Lee in 1960, is an important book for me. It holds a special place, being one of the first ‘real’ books I ever read. I’ve studied it throughout my school years, and read it again on a lonely 60-hour Greyhound bus ride.

The tale of Scout navigating Maycomb and its inhabitants, its perils, and its jewels is nostalgic and wholesome against the imperfect backdrop of Maycomb, Alabama. Scout was, still is, exactly the kind of girl I want to be; confident, smart, and in the middle of something important and exciting. She stood up for herself, climbed trees and thought it was cool to read.

Despite it being 50 years old this year, I’d never seen the film adaptation until now.

Scout (Mary Badham) lives with her older brother Jem (Philip Alford) live in Maycomb with their lawyer father Atticus (Gregory Peck). It’s 1932, and the whole community is feeling the financial strain after the Wall Street Crash. Walter Cunningham (Crahan Denton) pays his legal fees with hickory nuts and kindling, and the Ewell family have been hunting for squirrels to eat.

Much more interesting for Jem and Scout, though, is their hidden neighbour Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) who may have spent time locked up in the courthouse basement with the bats for stabbing his father in the leg with a pair of scissors.

In amongst the scraps with Walter Cunningham Jr, the rabid dog, and trying to spot Boo, Atticus takes on the defense case of Tom Robinson (Brock Peters,), accused of raping Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox). Tom is black, and Mayella is white, sparking off a race-row like Maycomb has never seen, asking the townsfolk whether they can put aside their racial prejudices for the sake of a fair trial.

To Kill A Mockingbird is famed for being a courtroom drama focusing on racism in the American South. Whilst race is undoubtedly an important theme within the film, we aren’t taken into the courthouse until over an hour of the film has passed. Instead, Mulligan paints a broader picture of Maycomb and its inhabitants, including issues of class, poverty, gender roles, justice, and courage.

To Kill A Mockingbird

It is important to remember that we are looking at these events through the memories of a child, that we experience Maycomb as Scout remembers it. Scout was six years old when the film began, the issues of her town weren’t likely to ever be on the top of her agenda. Instead, school ground justice took president, learning to be kind to people less fortunate than herself, and accepting other people’s differences.

Regardless, the black characters in the film are very much in the background, and aren’t developed into real people. Perhaps this says just as much about the 60s as much as the 30s, as another kind of film would not have been made, but in a modern cinema, it left me feeling a bit uneasy. The black characters had almost been reduced to stage-dressing to facilitate Atticus on his crusade of morally Doing the Right Thing.

Before the trial, Atticus sits outside of the jail to protect Robinson from a lynch mob. The men arrive, and are only ashamed of their actions when Scout starts jabbering to them. Robinson remains off screen, there is no inter-racial dialogue. This is representative of the time, perhaps, when the white folk didn’t care to interact with whom they felt superior to, and the social rift does seem insurmountable when neither side can or will interact.

The film was not about Robinson or his family, and I don’t believe that it was Mulligan’s intention to represent a black community on screen. Rather, it is a film To Kill A Mockingbird about a white man standing up for what he believes in, practicing what he preaches to his children, and hoping that others will follow him in doing the same.

Miss Maudy (Rosemary Murphy) tells Jem after the trial, “some men in this world are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us… your father is one of them” and this includes the audience too. We can stand behind Atticus and denounce racism and injustice without having to do any of the dirty work ourselves. We can be scornful over the actions of Bob Ewell safe in the knowledge that he is much worse a person than we will ever be.

Even the Sheriff Heck Tate (Overton) has a potentially quasi-redemptive moment at the end of the film. Without spoiling too much, he saves one life to try and make up for the loss of another, saying ‘let the dead bury the dead’. Mulligan gives us a Maycomb where we can try and make up for our mistakes, where good will eventually overcome.

Peck’s performance as Atticus is very strong, deserving both the hype and the Oscar win. He cuts an authoritative figure, explaining and fixing every problem that Scout encounters. He is cool and measured, but retains a fierce intensity behind his eyes.

After the trial, outside of Robinson’s home, Bob Ewell (Anderson) spits in Atticus’s face. Standing very close together, Atticus is taller, leaning over Ewell. He takes half a step forwards, the intimidated Ewell shuffling back. Atticus slowly moves his hand to his pocket, Ewell looking more and more afraid, until Atticus pulls out his hankerchief and mops his face. He doesn’t break eye contact, and moves slowly and deliberately, not rising to Ewell’s bait but still retaining the upper hand. The message is clear: don’t mess with the Finch.

The courtroom scene, Atticus’s speech to the jury in particular, is every bit as tense and rousing as I had hoped it would be. Through Peck, you really get the sense that Atticus believes in what he is saying, To Kill A Mockingbirdand he desperately wants to believe that the jury will set aside their prejudices for the sake of justice. Atticus is the moral compass for the film, and I firmly believed in his character.

I really enjoyed Mary Badham as Scout too, with her squawky Southern hollerin’, tantrums and questions, yelling ‘hey!’ to Mrs Dubose, only to get ‘don’t yell ‘hey’ to me you ugly girl!’ in response. I endeared to her immediately, and whilst I wasn’t keen on the adult-Scout voice over, I thought that she was the ideal conduit for the audience.

Whilst some of the social issues seem very much a product of the film’s time, many of the themes still ring true today. Last year’s documentaries The Black Power Mixtape (2011) and The Interrupters (2011) show how far America has come since the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s, and still needs to go moving into the future.

To Kill A Mockingbird shows us the institutionalised racism and the comments that go unsaid but have a huge affect on people’s lives. It shows us that one person can make a difference in an imperfect world, and I find that inspiring and hopeful.

It’s a very sweet childhood tale too, the friendship between a brother and sister, befriending the boogie man down the street, and trying to make sense of life’s big questions. If Scout can figure it out, then so can I.

Frances Taylor

Frances Taylor

Frances likes words and pictures, regardless of media. She finds great comfort and escape in film, and is attracted to anything character-driven with a strong story. Through these stories, she will find meaning in the world. Three movies that Frances thinks are really good for this are You and Me and Everyone We Know (Miranda July), I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK (Chan-Wook Park), and How I Ended This Summer (Alexei Popogrebsky).

When Frances grows up, she would like to write words and make pictures and have cool people recognise her on the street and tell her that they really enjoy her work.

She can be found overreacting and over-caffeinated on Twitter @penny_face, a childhood moniker from her grandmother owing to her gloriously round face.

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