John Ostrander: In Its Time, In Our Time
It starts with notes on a piano, played in the upper register, sounding like a child’s piano. We focus in on an old cigar box as a child’s voice, a girl, hums tunelessly as small hands open the box, revealing what looks like junk but is a child’s hidden treasures. The hands explore what is there, picking out a dark crayon and rubbing across a piece of paper. Letters emerge giving us the title of the film as the main theme returns, first with flute and harp and then a full orchestra. It’s a waltz, elegiac and slightly sad, evoking times past.
So begins To Kill A Mockingbird, Robert Mulligan’s 1962 film based on Harper Lee’s 1960 novel. Set in rural Alabama during the 1930s and the depths of the Depression, the story is told from the viewpoint of young Scout Finch, includes her brother Jem, and their father, the widowed lawyer Atticus Finch. It covers a year and a half during which time Atticus is called on to defend Tom Robinson, a black field worker accused of attacking and raping a white girl, Mayella Ewell.
I had the inestimable pleasure recently of seeing To Kill A Mockingbird up on the big screen as part of the film’s Fiftieth Anniversary celebration. I can’t recall if I saw it on the big screen when it first came out; I certainly haven’t seen it that way in decades. It has a force and emotional impact that I don’t feel from the small screen viewings of it. Mind you, I’m happy to watch DVD versions but I was happier to see it on the big screen.
The film brims with talent. It won a best actor Oscar for Gregory Peck who embodied Atticus Finch as well as the Oscar for best adapted screenplay, won by Horton Foote. Elmer Bernstein, drawing heavily from Aaron Copland, wrote one of the most beautiful film scores I know. Robert Duvall made his film debut here, as did Alice Ghostley and Rosemary Murphy. The two young actors playing Scout and Jem, Mary Badham and Philip Alford, are so natural and unforced that it amazes me that both had never acted before their debuts here.
Something else that strikes me in the movie is the depiction of African-Americans. There is a context for the film in its time that younger filmgoers may not know. The major Civil Rights legislation, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 had not yet occurred. The Selma to Montgomery march in Alabama wouldn’t be until 1965. The March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream” speech, would happen a year later. In his inauguration speech as governor of Alabama on January 14, 1963, George Wallace proclaimed “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” In June of 1963, he stood in the entry way of the University of Alabama in an attempt to keep two black students from entering.
That’s what the country and the South and Alabama looked like when To Kill a Mockingbird premiered. In the face of this massive refusal to see African-Americans as anything but second-class citizens (when they weren’t portrayed as subservient and altogether inferior), the movie gives us people of color, individuals, rich in humanity. It leaves no doubt that the accused, Tom Robinson, is innocent; it is Mayella Ewell’s father, Bob Ewell, who is probably the guilty one and he emerges as the vicious, racist animal. Brock Peters’ portrayal of the tragic Tom Robinson captures the fear of the doomed man. There is a dignity to all the black characters that gives the lie to the segregationist’s creed. The movie allowed white audiences to look at black characters and empathize with them, see themselves in the oppressed people, to identify with them. In Gregory Peck’s great speech at the end of the trial, we are sitting in the jury box. We, the audience, are being asked to judge. And we must confront the guilty verdict that the jury in the movie brings in and ask ourselves how we would have decided.
What was true in the 30s in Alabama was true in 1962 when the movie premiered. I would not presume to speak to the experience of African-Americans today. I am white, male, getting older, and I am a product of my times. I have heard too many whites I know still using the “n word”. They assume its safe to do so around me; after all, I am white as well. I correct that assumption as it comes up. I have also heard whites saying that they would never vote for a black man for president. Almost three fourths of the white males who voted in the last election voted against Barack Obama. Perhaps some of it was a difference with the President’s policies but how much more of it is because the President is black?
To deny another their humanity for whatever reason is to deny our own. In context of our time as well as the time it was made, To Kill A Mockingbird remains relevant. It also remains a beautiful, heartfelt film. It makes us feel for another person different from us and with that empathy, breaks down barriers. It’s what pop culture does that nothing else can quite do. It entertains as it opens our hearts and that can change minds. That is where hope lies.
MONDAY: Mindy Newell