One of the great things about setting out to watch all 100 of the AFI’s greatest American films of all time is it gives me an excellent chance to fill unforgivable gaps in my cinematic education. I had never seen To Kill A Mockingbird until last week, and given the fact that I’m a black guy who’s also a sucker for noble, pure-hearted people in stories, you’d figure it would be right up my alley. Somehow I’ve missed it until now, and I’m actually glad of that. I got to see it when I’m old enough to truly appreciate it and mull the themes that it plays with.
On the surface, To Kill a Mockingbird looks like one of those kid’s movies that’s really a string of scenes with a big moral that loosely connects them. Scout (Badham) and Jem (Alford) Finch play together in a very small town, while their father Atticus (Peck) tries to raise them on his own and hold down a job as a lawyer. The children learn quite a bit about how to behave compassionately towards your fellow man from their father, as well as what happens when that quality is absent on both a personal and societal level. What makes this film work is that it uses these universal, grand themes and reduces them to the smallest possible interpersonal level, so nothing feels showy or preachy; the arguments are presented in an understated manner that makes them all the more powerful.
Peck is pitch-perfect in the role of Atticus, but then everyone already knew that. He inhabits the character with such natural, easy morality that you never question him. Even though he always does the right thing and always knows the right thing to say to get his point across, he doesn’t feel wooden, or boring, or fake. He always comes across as a human being with an unfailing moral compass; even when it’s not easy, even when it hurts him, he has this compulsion to do the right thing.
This relatability is key, not only to us buying him in the movie but to us buying his relationship with his children and the effect he has on them. If Peck came across as too much Superman and not enough Clark Kent, he would have looked like an abstraction more than a man, an ideal of good and lawfulness given flesh. But because he’s just some guy whose morality leads him to do extraordinary things, he inspires the belief that everyone has that capacity, that we could all be that good if we tried hard enough. Scout and Jem don’t always manage it — they can be casually cruel in the way that children are — but they rise up to their potential when it counts.
There are two big instances where it does count. First, the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Most people in town consider this an open-and-shut case; it’s a black man’s word against the word of a white family, and even if everyone knows the father’s a drunk there’s really no issue here. Atticus is called to defend the man, and he does it to the best of his ability even in the face of such huge societal opposition.
The trial scene is simply gorgeous. Atticus takes apart the prosecutor’s case piece by piece, and builds the searing testimony of Robinson in its place. With patience and clarity he forces everyone in the courtroom to look at the truth behind the lie and face their own prejudices, the way they’ve reduced a man to a thing. It’s a breathtaking thing to watch; he’s not too showy, he doesn’t come across as too righteous, he never once over-reaches in his pursuit to get the accuser to tell the truth. The trial’s result, and the way Atticus is regarded as he leaves the courtroom, leaves an indelible mark.
Scout takes the lesson learned from this and applies it to Boo Radley, the neighborhood bogeyman. I won’t go into too much detail about that, just in case you’re reading this and you’re one of twelve people who haven’t seen this movie yet — but suffice to say, the movie’s disparate plot threads come together in a surprising yet satisfying way.
There are a lot of other small details about Southern life that feel so, so right. The shape of the houses remind me a lot of home (even though home is Baltimore City), and the Finch’s maid reminds me a lot of my own mother. I remember running around the neighborhood at night with friends, telling stories about what might be lurking in abandoned houses or what recluses do when no one’s watching. These things ground the action quite well, and establish a deceptively care-free world for the children to run through. So when they stray into the world of adults, everything’s given a weight that fits.
Of course I recommend this movie. Atticus Finch is one of the greatest heroes ever committed to celluloid, and as the heart of the movie he elevates every scene he’s in. While he represents the qualities that are best in us, he never puts them out of our reach. We can all be Atticus if we made the decision to do the right thing, every time. That series of choices, laid out before us, is what determines the quality of the lives we lead, and the quality of the lives around us. We can elevate the people we touch in the same manner, without being a pain in the ass about it.