This week’s Memorable Movie Moment takes us back to 1962 and director Robert Mulligan‘s big screen adaptation of author Harper Lee‘s To Kill a Mockingbird. The story of Mockingbird goes even further back to the Depression-era South, and finds white attorney Atticus Finch defending a black man accused of beating a white woman. Atticus Finch has become a name synonymous with racial justice in twentieth-century America. The book was published in 1960 and became an instant best-seller, earning author Lee a Pulitzer Prize. It is regularly read among high school literature classes and has become one of the most famous and successful novels ever written. After publishing Mockingbird, Lee never wrote another book. She did assist author Truman Capote with research for his famous novel In Cold Blood, and the character of Dill is said to be based on Capote, who was a childhood friend of the authors. Lee’s estate also published the original manuscript for Mockingbird titled Go Set a Watchman earlier this year, but the release remains somewhat controversial as Lee’s health was deteriorating and questions arose regarding whether it was her idea to publish the novel or not.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a very serious story told from the innocent perspective of Jean-Louise (Scout) Finch, a tomboy who runs around her neighborhood with her older brother Jem and their neighbor Dill. Their father is Atticus Finch, who is written by Lee as an extremely moral, intelligent, and excellent father figure. His role in defending Tom Robinson is somewhat lost on Scout, however, and the gravity of the matter instead falls on Jem, who struggles with Atticus’ unquestionable morality in the face of such a controversial court case.
Several key supporting characters also contribute to the progress of the story, and the depiction of the era. Bob Ewell stands as an endearing image of Southern racism in the United States. He accuses Atticus of being a “nigger-lover” and in the end attacks his children for his defending the man who “beat” his socially-inept and abused daughter, Mayella. Another famous supporting character is Boo Radley (portrayed by Robert DuVall), the mysterious neighbor the three children enjoy indulging in fantasies about, but who, in the end (and in my opinion), turns out to be one of the many ‘mockingbirds’ throughout the story. Tom Robinson is another, in that he, as a black man, meant only to help Mayella Ewell, a white woman who he knew was not treated well and really just needed friendly company. And of course, Atticus Finch is a ‘mockingbird’ for Tom, a man who, despite what willingly defending a black man might do to him and his family, stands up for justice, even though he he knows victory is impossible.
For today’s movie moment, we go back to Atticus Finch’s closing argument at Tom Robinson’s trial. Actor Gregory Peck (The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, The Guns of Navarone) won an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of the role, and this speech is definitely part of the reason why. To close his defense, Atticus does the unthinkable: he begs an all-white jury in an Alabama court to forget the acceptable norms of the time, and to do what is truly just. Finch bravely and unflinchingly calls out and crucifies the horrid cultural norms of the era and begs them to judge Robinson’s case fairly, without consideration of his societal status or the fact that he is black. For your enjoyment, here is Gregory Peck at Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.