Monday, May 12, 2008

To Kill a Mockingbird

By Elise Nakhnikian

To Kill a Mockingbird is not that Great American Novel that people used to be so eager to discover, but it is a great story for and about children. And both the book and the movie adapted from it are quintessentially American, in both their failings and their accomplishments.

Mockingbird’s most compelling subplot is about the trials – and trial – of Tom Robinson, an upstanding black man unjustly accused of the rape of a white woman. But the real subject of Horton Foote’s 1962 screenplay, as of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, is the moral education of young Scout Finch (Mary Badham), the story’s narrator, and her big brother Jem (Phillip Alford).

Lee got an awful lot right about childhood, including the myths kids invent about their neighbors, the speed with which they can make new friends or enemies, and the sense of adventure and risk that can be involved in a simple walk – or run – down the block. Scout learns to respect and empathize with other people; Jem struggles with wrenching truths about how the world works. Mixed in with those big themes are plenty of light moments that ring just as true, like Jem’s longing for a gun of his own, or the ham costume Scout wears for her school’s Halloween pageant and gets stuck wearing home.

The picture Mockingbird paints of a particular place, time, and stage of life is its main strength, but it’s a heavily touched-up portrait. The little 1930s Alabama town of Lee’s memory was fighting some ferocious demons, including the Depression and the crippling effects of Jim Crow racism. Lee also has some things to say about the damage done by poverty and sexism. But viewing it all through the eyes of a young white lawyer’s child blinds us to some hard truths.

Scout’s Maycomb is a neighborly place, full of people who are essentially decent, even if they sometimes do indecent things. Its terrors are almost all imaginary, like the reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley, (Robert Duvall, looking affectingly spooky in his first movie role) whose image the kids conjure up to scare themselves, each other, and their summer friend Dill (the Dumbo-eared John Megna, playing an endearingly fanciful emotional orphan based on Lee’s childhood playmate Truman Capote). And though her mother is dead, her father, the estimable Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is a one-man band of parental virtues: eternally wise, unflashily heroic, unflappable, devoted to his children, and positively brimming with life lessons.

Director Robert Mulligan, who specialized in earnest TV dramas before Mockingbird, and cinematographer Russell Harlan, who did mostly B-movie Westerns, shot in a beautifully composed yet unshowy black and white that is a visual match for Lee’s combination of realism and nostalgia. Foote’s elegantly structured screenplay carries Lee’s poetic/ironic voice into the movie in the form of a voiceover, which is read in a wise and world-weary drawl by Kim Hunter. And the brilliant Elmer Bernstein score includes a sparingly used theme song that contains the children’s hopes, fears, and sense of wonder.

It all adds up to a compelling but suspiciously comforting tale – a declaration of faith in the essential goodness of human beings, the power of one extraordinary man to change everything, and the moral superiority of who else but you and me.

To Kill a Mockingbird infantilizes its African-American characters, stripping them of any individuality other the palpable personalities the actors endow them with. There can be a luxurious self-flattery in shaking your head as Tom Robinson’s wife crumples in despair on hearing of her husband’s fate, or in crying when a dignified African-American minister tells Scout to rise from her seat in the courtroom balcony to join the others in showing respect as her father heads out (“Miss Scout, stand up!” he says. “Your father’s passing.” Gets me every time.)

Crying puts us safely on the side of the good guys, short-circuiting any doubts that might have otherwise surfaced about our own complicity in American racism, past and present. And just as it lets us off the hook as individuals, Lee’s story lets the Jim Crow South off too easily – the same way we so often let ourselves off the hook in America for crimes committed against our black citizens.

There’s something downright distasteful about how accommodating and self-effacing Tom Robinson is. Did Lee believe that a black man had to be a saint in order to gain a white audience’s sympathy? Or, worse yet, did she think only a man who voiced no objection to his own objectification deserved our sympathy?

Surely not, yet Tom is almost childlike in his malleability. And if he and the other African-American characters are too passive, the white characters can be too heroic, accomplishing superhuman feats on behalf of the silent mass of suffering black folks. Even six-year-old Scout single-handedly vanquishes a lynch mob at the jail where Tom’s being held.

William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust offers a mirror image to Mockingbird. The unjustly accused black man in Faulkner’s story meets a better fate than Tom Robinson, yet the story feels bleaker and tougher. That’s partly because it holds white Southerners accountable for racism in a way that has to do with atoning for crimes, not with Atticus’ sense of noblesse oblige. But it’s also because of the anger and resistance exhibited by some of the black people in Faulkner’s story.

Faulkner’s Lucas Beauchamp doesn’t get into trouble with his poor white neighbors because, like Tom Robinson, he has the temerity to be nice to them. He is targeted because he has the nerve to do better than them, and to make it crystal clear that he doesn’t care what they think of that – or of him. A proud, angry man, he calls the shots from jail as surely as he did in his own home. Faulkner also gives us a much richer portrait of the poor whites who target Beauchamp and the resentment that motivates them. In the process, he delivers a more nuanced telling than Mockingbird of a startlingly similar story.

So if you want a realistic, complex, grown-up picture of race relations in the Jim Crow South, read Intruder. But if you’ve got kids, you might want to introduce them to Mockingbird. It may tell us as much about the time when it was made as it does about the time its story is set in, but it’s a fascinating slice of Americana.

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