|Gregory Peck & Mary Badham in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)|
Was this blog's radio silence deafening to anyone other than me? Probably not, but as I crawl back into the blogging driver's seat, I admit I must get my barrings. A month away may be enough to shake off the cobwebs and shoo away the crickets, or could very well make me forget how to form a thought. Let's give this the ol' college try, shall we? Or for this one, should I say 'high school'? Because was there a high school freshman in America not required to read this book by Harper Lee, feverishly digging through its themes with distracted desperation?
As we breach the last quarter of films on our AFI Top 100 countdown, it's almost surprising that we're already hitting the (too high?) #25 selection, To Kill a Mockingbird. The poetically idealistic exploration of racial injustice in the Depression-era South isn't only for school consumption, and should be remembered by the masses for more than introducing us to America's Favorite Dad. Like its source, this film is a storybook, hazy and imbued with the memories of early childhood.
It's the summer of 1933, and our narrator Scout Finch remembers the time fondly, herself a young girl of six (played by Mary Badham). The Depression has hit the quiet, dusty town of Maycomb, Alabama, but watching Scout and her older brother, Jem (Phillip Alford), playing wistfully and without a care alongside their friend Dill (John Megna), you wouldn't know it. While Jem and Scout entertain Dill with scary stories about their reclusive neighbors, the Radleys, their father Atticus (Gregory Peck), a thoughtful widow and lawyer, becomes the subject of much anger when he agrees to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who has been falsely accused of rape. Over the next few years, as the charges fuel hatred and unmask the crippling racism ingrained in the white townspeople, Scout watches in wonder and reverence as Atticus fearlessly pursues justice for Tom during an emotional trial.
When most people talk about To Kill a Mockingbird, they're apt to mention Gregory Peck's performance as Atticus Finch. Considered the #1 Film Hero by the American Film Institute, he is a character synonymous with goodness. He is the kind of father every little girl wanted and the kind of man she dreamt of finding once she'd grown. Peck's handsome looks weren't in competition with his competence as an actor, nor his ability to bring a poetic gravitas to the role of a lifetime.
Atticus' "perfection," as is clearly conveyed in Robert Mulligan's film, is part of what makes the film so memorable--and so hotly debated. There is an argument often made that this story and its characters (Atticus in particular) lack a necessary level of complexity—something it aims to earn by establishing a strong moral message at its core, but struggles to assert when Atticus takes his noble stand in defense of an innocent man with nary a misstep or vulnerability in sight. But I wholeheartedly disagree. Namely because this is a story told through the rose-colored glasses of a child; or rather, a grown woman who looks back on her time as a child with wonder and, dare I say, simplicity. This never was our story to interpret, but rather Scout's to dissect—a way to look at one of the most memorable moments in her life, and discover how it shaped who she's become.
Whatever marring in Atticus' character that would come to pass as Scout's worldview broadened with age doesn't appear to touch these memories—and there is beauty and hope in our never being exposed to it, either. Badham owns this story, incorporating into Scout an earnest curiosity with the grating irritation of a child who is too observant and obstinate for their own good. She's given not only the best material, but she also has the most interactions with the adult cast beyond Peck. Alford as Jem gives a fair performance, despite his having significantly less to work with, from personality to dialogue, but he is a key component in the film's initial playfulness and eventual serious shift—though despite it all, even Jem is powerfully hazy through Scout's recollection.
The strongest performance the film offers is likely also the most irritating. The alleged victim of the crime, Mayella Violet Ewell, is played with infuriating commitment by Collin Wilcox, and in the film's climactic trial sequence, Mayella proceeds to stammer and stutter and convulse with indignation through her testimony of the assault. The film handles her testimony brilliant yet troubling fashion. For the sake of the film, and our interest in finding the truth to acquit Tom Robinson, she sputters exactly what we hope she will. Confused misinformation stemming from obvious lies about a rape that clearly couldn't have happened. In the eyes of the story, this is perfectly done. But in the eyes of a more modern audience? There is an element of victim-blaming, making Mayella, an alleged rape victim, out to be a liar—a pit in my stomach knotted up with some serious trigger language that simply wouldn't quit.
But then we remember: some people are liars, and the reason they lie is the meat behind the story's themes. Mayella's a victim, all right, and her accusations are as misguided and uneducated as her circumstances would suggest they'd be. Watching Wilcox twist Mayella into the frightened mouse she becomes is nothing short of compelling, and while Wilcox could be accused of overacting here, Mayella's recount of the events earns every second the scenery chewing.
I could acknowledge the faults in this film that others seem to find, but in the end, I couldn't disagree more that this story is too quaint or lacks dimension. In its very bones lies the affected memories of a young girl, conveniently missing important world events to focus on the trivialities of life, and more importantly, the people that had an impact—big and small.
All of my favorite part of a movie—characters and dialogue and music—come together here to tell an emotional story that is timeless despite its timely subject matter. That is nearly impossible to do, and we shouldn't ignore the accomplishment. The American Film Institute clearly hasn't.
Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars
Check back next time for #24 on the list, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!