I spent most of my weekend either working or immersed in one of the birthday DVDs my husband got me- the DVD of "To Kill a Mockingbird" along with all the cool bonus documentaries. I have to say I am not one of those lawyers who went into law because of this movie, but I did like the Atticus Finch character a lot when I watched the movie growing up. (How can you not like him, after all?) I hadn't seen the movie since I was a teenager and I have to confess myself a teensy bit disappointed, in that it didn't quite live up to my memory of it.
In particular, I found myself squirming a bit during the latter parts of the Tom Robinson saga, the story of how Atticus Finch, in the face of his community's disapproval, gave his all in defending a wrongfully accused black man. The part that got me was the scene in which the black spectators at the trial, segregated to the upper balcony, all stand up for Atticus as he leaves the courtroom, and the Reverend tells Scout to stand up because her father is passing. On the one hand, it is awfully satisfying to see so plainly how Atticus has won the respect of the people in the community whose respect is most worth having-- and that's how I always viewed the scene before (usually I am embarrassed to admit with a little snurf). On the other hand, with a bit more maturity I guess, I find myself wishing that this film, which is about a terrible atrocity perpetrated on a black man because of his race, hadn't been quite so white-centric.
Afterwards, as I was surfing the net to see what others thought about the movie, I learned that Roger Ebert had had the same discomfort I had, even with regard to the moving show of respect for Atticus: "The problem here, for me, is that the conviction of Tom Robinson is not the point of the scene, which looks right past him to focus on the nobility of Atticus Finch." He goes on to describe a later scene in which Atticus goes to the house of Tom Robinson's wife to report that Tom Robinson had been killed trying to escape after his conviction, noting: "The black people in this scene are not treated as characters, but as props, and kept entirely in long shot. The close-ups are reserved for the white hero and villain." Imagine if the recent film "North Country," featuring Charlize Theron as the woman who courageously stood up to her sexist employer had instead focused on the male attorney who represented Theron's character in the sexual harassment suit she brought!
Of course, this is not an entirely fair criticism, because the story of "To Kill a Mockingbird" is told from the point of view of Atticus's six-year old daughter, Scout. It is natural that Atticus's little girl would be most focused on the events as they pertain to him. It should also be noted that this story is, in part, about how Scout is only just starting to learn about the plight of African-Americans in her community and, more broadly, she is only just starting to learn about empathy with other people differently situated from herself. I think it's not really the story itself that bothers me or the movie. There is room for humanitarian accounts of atrocities against black people in this country from perspectives of both white and black characters. What bothers me though is the way "To Kill a Mockingbird" is still, two decades after "The Color Purple," often treated like the definitive film about segregation and discrimination. Maybe it's because for so long it was probably the only film to expose the dreadful reality of these issues-- but still, it is important to remember that the story is primarily a story of a white family, the story of a wonderful father's relationship with his children.
I should also note that it is certainly not a bad thing to laud the courage of privileged members of society who put themselves on the line for those who are oppressed. After all, when I think of the Holocaust, I think of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel, but I also think of Miep Gies and Corrie Ten Boom, courageous Christian women who risked themselves in order to shelter Jews from the Nazis.
And the character of Atticus Finch is wonderful. Someone has even written a book for lawyers about how to be more like Atticus! He embodies fairness and empathy. I appreciate this because I am big on the idea of empathy as a key virtue. He also concentrates on what is important. While he appears to be awfully permissive with his kids, he is in fact helping them to truly internalize his values by both explaining them and modeling them, rather than teaching his children merely to obey out of fear of external censure.
I have got more to say on the rape angle and the courtroom scenes, but will have to save those thoughts for another day. Meanwhile, if you like the movie, I do recommend the DVD with the documentary called "Fearful Symmetry" about the making of the film, and interview with the actress who played Scout -- all grown up! -- and a documentary about Gregory Peck, who was by all accounts, a lovely man not unlike Atticus.