I’m a little late to the party; I hadn’t seen To Kill a Mockingbird before. I read the book in high school, but missed the day we watched the film in class. Honestly, I’m the world’s biggest idiot because I was missing out on a beautiful, tear-jerking piece of cinematic excellence. Progressive for the time, To Kill a Mockingbird presents a 1960s message on prejudice, violence, and tolerance that’s one of the best I’ve seen (and Peck had done social commentary films prior to). Told from the mature POV of an adult, but featuring a cast of child stars that’s unparalleled, To Kill a Mockingbird is a movie the entire family needs to experience.
In the Depression-era South, lawyer and family man Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) defends suspected murderer, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters). As the racism and hatred of the South builds up against Atticus, his two children come to understand racial intolerance.
Child stars, and films aimed at children, generally regard them as stupid; To Kill a Mockingbird gets down to a kid’s level (one reason why this was played during TCM’s Essentials, Jr.). The opening credits are told through a child’s drawings, with a black crayon clashing with white paper. As the credits continue, Scout’s tokens build the black and white world that the adults of the town live in: marbles, a black bird drawn on white paper. The narrator (voiced by Kim Stanley) is able to recall her childhood with nostalgic adult eyes: “The day was 24-hours long, but seemed longer.” She’s nostalgic, but able to understand the things that children value during that time period; things that haven’t changed in subsequent generations. The child actors create individual identities and inhabit their roles like a second skin. Dil (John Megna) and Scout (Mary Badham) are adept at this. The children live their own fairy tale that ends up dovetailing and foreshadowing similar events in the adult world. They start to tell myths involving town “freak,” Boo Radley, but you’re only receiving one side of the story as they are; it’s the one side they believe with all their hearts is true, same as it is for the adults. Dil’s Aunt Stephanie (Alice Ghostley) doesn’t help matters, as she exaggerates to maximize the horrific nature of the story.
The dream world of the children ends up attacked and contradicted by the volatile adult world. The children, again all played expertly, never magically transform into wise adult-children as you would expect in films today. They understand there’s injustice in the world, but can’t understand why things are that way. It’s analogous to the topic of gender; Scout dresses like a tomboy, and once school stars she’s forced to taste adulthood by wearing a dress. The dress creates gender, and alerts Scout to the fact that she’s different from the boys. She can’t understand why she is different, and comes to learn that being female brings with it the need to dress feminine and be subservient; Scout doesn’t learn this on her own, society forces it upon her. It’s the same way the children learn about race and racism. There’s no legitimate reason why Tom Robinson is different; his skin is different and thus he’s different. When the children have to disband the lynch mob in order to save their father and Tom, it’s a testament to their maturity that they can remain calm and pull it off. While they’re able to enjoy the fruits of childhood, they are given a harsh lesson in the true way the world works.
Gregory Peck, are there words to describe the level of amazing he is in this film? The strongest element within To Kill a Mockingbird is his relationship with his children. If I didn’t know beforehand that the children were actors I could believe them to be his own children because that’s how strong his connection is. He knows his children better than anyone and Peck take full advantage of stage business to convey the routine he has with his kids. He isn’t afraid to give them a swat for being disrespectful, but it comes with love. Conversely, his children come to learn how little they know of their father (don’t all children believe their parents didn’t have a life till they came along?). When they’re told Atticus is the best shot in the county, it’s a shock to them; the fact alone, on top of the new-found knowledge that Atticus understands the employment of violence. Peck, and the entire movie, refuses to talk down to children. Peck is eloquent and blunt in explaining broad topics like racism to his kids, but he always makes sure they understand as best possible. There’s several essays written about Atticus Finch as a Lincoln-esque figure, and I believe they’re on to something.
The script reveals events economically – the watch sequence where Atticus’ wife’s death is revealed being a perfect example. The uncertainty of life is revealed as needed. The trial sequence is where the acting, script, everything comes together to create a bombastic and indelible film. Brock Peters as Tom Robinson is a revelation and I need to look into his work further. When he’s placed on the witness stand, he’s visibly uncomfortable detailing his story and comes off just as traumatized as the victim. Atticus’ final summation is low-key, independent of theatrics as can happen in closing arguments. The ending is an upset, because the justice system fails Tom Robinson and Atticus has to fight the good fight despite thankless human irrationality and injustice. The utter defeat in Atticus – “We had more than a good chance” – will upset you. The children are also given a harsh lesson that the world is unfair.
The final few minutes of the film are utterly beautiful, from Scout’s eventual meeting with Boo Radley (Robert Duvall in his début role) to the children walking through a wood filled with Gothic imagery. Duvall, especially, brings out tears by saying nothing. He becomes a flesh and blood character, the monster who proves to be a guardian angel. Scout’s final moments with Atticus are a beautiful father/daughter moment that pulled on my heart. The two characters see eye to eye (literally, once Atticus picks up his daughter). In the short amount of time she’s found her own “mockingbird” and will fight to protect it. The ending sequence becomes the perfect encapsulation of safety and love that every child craves, and every adult seeks to have again.
To Kill a Mockingbird is the great American movie and deserves all the praise it gets. Enough said.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.