While the larger world seems to be bathed in darkness these days I decided to do a small marathon at some point this year with films that don’t hide from the bleak parts of life but showcase how hope can emerge from such circumstances. Some of these are films I’ve seen before, some I never have. This will be the first collection of movies under the banner of Hope in the Midst of Darkness. As I learn of and remember more films that fit the moniker, I’ll return in batches of five or six.
To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
Written by Horton Foote
Directed by Robert Mulligan
Author Harper Lee died in her sleep on February 19, 2016. The preceding year had seen the publication of her second novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” a text steeped in controversy and dubiously released to the public. HarperCollins had received a copy of the manuscript after Lee’s lawyer had found it while appraising the writer’s assets in 2011. Accusations were made that the lawyer had coerced and abused an elder, Lee’s health and mental state were said to be in poor condition in her latter years. The state of Alabama found these charges unfounded, but doubts still remain as Lee has consistently stated she had no additional novels to publish since Mockingbird. Since Lee’s death, more information has come to light that Watchman was an earlier draft of Mockingbird, but the damage had been done. Despite this abuse in her final act, Lee will still be remembered as the author of one of the seminal books of the 20th century, which became a critically lauded film two years after it’s publication.
Scout and Jem are the children of Atticus Finch, a lawyer in small-town Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression. Their summers are filled with wild adventures running around the neighborhood, playing with their friend Dill. Like all children, their lives are filled with the wild fantasies of youth, including a local bogeyman named Boo Radley who lives secluded in a house down the street. Their childhood idyll is disrupted when Atticus takes on the defense of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Despite the town’s growing anger toward Robinson, Atticus refuses to drop the case because he knows this is a man falsely charged. Through the eyes of Scout and Jem, we watch their father argue that Robinson is an innocent man, and these children come of age, learning about some of the weighty truths of the world.
When Gregory Peck is on the screen, you immediately understand why this movie is held up in the halcyon halls of American cinema. He’s able to exude the gravitas, so few actors are capable of without looking like he’s putting a lot of effort into it. In real life, Peck was one of several actors who signed on to a condemnation of the House Committee on Un-American Activities as they were attempting to blacklist communists in the film industry. He was a lifelong Democrat who advocated for gun control and the banning of nuclear weapons. The actor expressed that he was Roman Catholic but openly disagreed with the Church about abortion, contraception, and gay rights. In 1987, Peck even provided voice-overs for commercials speaking out against Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court. There came the point shortly after Mockingbird’s release that Atticus and Peck became so intermingled that the actor essentially became the character and vice versa.
Completely overshadowed by the critical platitudes for Peck is character actor Brock Peters who plays Tom Robinson. When Peters gets his big monologue, sitting on the stand, testifying for his life, you can feel his anguish coming through the screen. As a black man in the deep South in the 1930s, he knows the odds are completely stacked against him. No matter how well Robinson testifies, no matter how well Atticus argues the case, everyone knows how this story ends. It’s the way it ended with injustice for so many black men before and continues to this day, though the system has adjusted so it can claim it’s not racism. Peters was a veteran of stage and screen, most recognizable to the public as Admiral Cartwright in the Star Trek film series and as Benjamin Sisko’s father on Deep Space Nine. It is a significant disgrace that he didn’t see a prominent film career after his role in Mockingbird because Peters showcases powerful acting chops.
It has to be said that Mockingbird is not a flawless film. The first act is trying to hit all the plot beats of the novel but doesn’t really flesh out the details. Due to time constraints, the Dill character doesn’t get much development despite a competent child actor cast in the role. There’s also the fact that as a beautiful a character as Atticus Finch is this film has been copied so many times over in much worse ways. Every year or two, we have the white savior film (see Green Book) that spotlights a white protagonist and their pain and struggles to help a poor black person. The film version of Mockingbird loses the point of view of Scout that the novel maintains, so you start to feel the creep of the white savior tropes in the third act, though it never reaches the gross cynical nature of modern cinema.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a fantastic film, a movie with a sincere heart, something that is hard to find in theaters today. This is a movie that isn’t afraid to take a clear stand in defense of what is right even if they knew large portions of the population might respond negatively. It’s also a movie that doesn’t deliver its message so on the nose as contemporary pictures might. If you need a different type of filmmaking, a fresh tone compared to what we’re inundated with so regularly, give To Kill a Mockingbird a shot.