Americana Movie Month: "To Kill a Mockingbird" Review

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Gregory Peck gives an Oscar-winning performance as Atticus Finch, a lawyer in the Depression-era South who defends a black man against an undeserved rape charge, and his kids against prejudice. Based on Harper Lee's Pulitzer prize-winning novel of the same name.
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Americana Movie Month: "To Kill a Mockingbird" Review

-- Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Length: 129 minutes
Release Date: March 16, 1963
Directed by: Robert Mulligan
Genre: Crime/Drama/Mystery

"To Kill a Mockingbird" paints a sometimes grim, but often hopeful picture of life in tiny Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression. It tells the story of Scout (Mary Badham), a tomboyish young girl whose father Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is a lawyer back when lawyers were still seen as stewards of the law instead of the bottom feeders they are often painted as today. He is an upright and moral man who refuses to sit back and let good be overcome by evil, a practice he is trying very hard to instill in Scout.

One day, a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) is accused of raping Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox), a white girl. Tom has no money for legal representation, so the town judge asks Atticus to defend him, which he agrees to do. This sends ripples through the town because many of his fellow white men feel that Atticus should not be defending a Negro. Atticus is determined to go through with his defense of the man, which leads to Mayella's dad Bob (James Anderson) threatening the safety of Atticus' children, including the smart-beyond-her-years Scout. Though this might stop most fathers in their tracks, Atticus stands up for what he believes in, despite the risks.

He fervently defends Tom in the courtroom, giving undeniable proof that he was innocent, and that Mayella had not even been raped. He even shows the all-white jury that Bob beat Mayella, which forced her to make up the rape story in order to stop her father hitting her. Despite the clear evidence, the jury still convicts Tom in a heartbreaking scene that is punctuated by the quiet sadness that comes over the courtroom. Soon after, Atticus is informed that Tom tried to escape from custody on his way back to jail and during the escape attempt a deputy shot him. Scout, overhearing the conversation, believes with her whole heart that this is really what happened to Tom. Present-day viewers would likely realize that Tom probably didn't try to escape, but was murdered in retaliation for a crime he did not commit. The fact that the innocent Scout believes the story just makes the scene, as well as the entire premise of the film that much more heartbreaking.

Gregory Peck worked steadily in films until five years before his death in 2003, amassing nearly sixty credits on his acting resume. Even though some of those parts were very high profile, he was forever associated with Atticus Finch after the release of "To Kill a Mockingbird." That must have been an easy burden for Peck to bear, considering that Atticus was a groundbreaking and iconic character who made the American Film Institute (AFI) list of Greatest Heroes in American Film. The part also won Peck an Academy Award for Best Actor, his only win from five nominations. It is arguably his best performance in a career littered with fantastic takes on deep, well-rounded characters.

The big draw of the book that separates it from other racially-charged novels is that it is told through the eyes of a child. Children see the world in more simplistic terms than adults, who tend to complicate things, and in so doing make them much harder to deal with. The issue of racism as seen through Scout's eyes is about humanity and dignity, whereas most of the adults around her hate others based on their race, but can't give a good reason why. To them, skin color is a complex issue, while to Scout it is a simple issue of respect and equal treatment. The adults in "To Kill a Mockingbird" could learn a lot from the child, if only they would open their ears and hearts.

Director Robert Mulligan could have easily skirted over the tough issue of race, or could have had screenwriter Horton Foote rewrite the screenplay from an adult's point of view. Instead, he embraced the central conceit of the book, which is still considered to be one of the greatest English language novels of all time. He takes on the heady subject with abandon, exposing the dark underbelly of a deeply divided town where violence is used far too often as a tool of racism. He also doesn't try to sugarcoat the movie by giving it the usual happy ending, instead staying true to Harper Lee's book and vision. The film does occasionally go dark, but it never completely loses its hopeful undertones as Atticus tries, sometimes in vain, to change the hearts and minds of the citizens of Maycomb. The film has been credited with changing the hearts and minds of real people, which helps it transcend its fictional roots and makes it an instant classic.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars