To Kill a Mockingbird, both the book and movie, stands as nothing less than a classic and is perhaps the great American novel as well as a great movie. When the book was written by Harper Lee, about the Depression South and their views on race relations, the ideas and themes were as relevant in 1930’s America as it was the in the 1960’s; even more so as the 1960’s was finally able to address the issues of race and prejudice in ways that it had not been able to do so at any time in America’s past. In the early 1960’s, with the election of John F. Kennedy as the president, a new era of politics was about to show its face. Under the Eisenhower Administration, little had been done in the face of race relations. Kennedy was elected and African Americans, after voting the straight Republican ticket for a hundred years, voted for Kennedy in record numbers and has voted overwhelmingly ever since.(Wolper, 1961) The book and movie, although set thirty years in the past, is a reflection of this new attitude towards race. Concerning the 1960’s, most of the attention concerning social change, is given to the end of the decade but a great deal of progress was being made at the time in which the movie was being made and shown to audiences. As a result, the message of the movie and its relevance, hit a nerve in the consciousness of the American people, then as well as now. Race relations and the impediments that come from prejudice, have always plagued America to a greater degree than most countries in the world. To Kill a Mockingbird, and its unique and accurate look at the way in which African Americans were treated, helped to put a face and a name to a race in which much of the white community in America, had opinions based upon ignorance. To Kill a Mockingbird, helped to address that problem, and in the end, succeeded to a greater degree than any other single movie or book ever has been able to accomplish.
During the last months of the 1960 Presidential Campaign, Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in Georgia for refusing to adhere to the segregation laws of a local diner. When John F. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate from Massachusetts, and the front runner, heard of this, he applied political pressure to the governor of Georgia and King was released. ( Wolper, 1961) This act helped Kennedy to capture the African American vote for him as well as for future democrats. African Americans were becoming emboldened by their new found freedom and power and felt that Jim Crow and the segregation laws which had once been seen as sacrosanct in Southern culture, had outlived its welcome and needed to go. In August of 1963, Martin Luther King have his: I Have a Dream Speech at the Lincoln Memorial and solidified the beliefs and the struggles for African Americans at that time as well as now: A fair share of the opportunity and success that the rest of Americans had been promised would be available and that one’s ability to achieve that success, should not be excluded because of the color of their skin. Many in the South as well those in the North who had been able to humanize the struggle for civil rights as their contact with African Americans had been minimal, found that sympathy towards this struggle to be difficult to understand. To Kill a Mockingbird helped to connect a name with a face and aided the Civil Rights Movement in the opening years of the 1960’s. (Pullman, 1991 p. 70). This was most certainly the case as posterity would come to appreciate Lee’s works more and more.
Except for a few differences between the portrayal of Aunt Alexandria in the book and movie as well as Mayella Ewell’s response to Atticus’s questioning of her on the stand, there are few differences between the book and the movie. Both the book and movie are narrated by Atticus’s youngest daughter, Scout and Tom Robinson is still the man accused of raping Mayella Ewell and is murdered after he is found guilty of the crime. The movie does justice to the book in ways that many screen adaptations are not able to accomplish. The absence of Mrs. Dubois in the movie is an obvious difference but does not compromise the story line of the movie at all. Therefore, the differences between the book and the movie do not alter the main ideas of the story and its central themes.
The message of the movie is twofold: “That racial prejudice serves as an impediment, not only to the receiver of the injustice but also to the society as a whole is something that people as well as a society should avoid.” Shields, 1998 p. 187) Also, it is important for one to stand up for what one believes in: even though that fight is against impossible odds. Atticus is not such an idealist that he really expects to be able to secure an acquittal for Tom Robinson. This seems more than unlikely but when asked to by the judge; he still takes the case and the defense of Tom Robison. “Atticus takes the case because he believes in the innocence of Tom Robinson as well as in the Constitution which affords every citizen of America the right to legal council in their own defense.” (Pullman, 1991 p. 73) The first message in the movie and the most obvious is the racial strife that comes from a black man being accused of raping a white woman. This act alone invoked strong feelings at that time and there is already present, a racially charged atmosphere that has been present even before this most recent events. To Kill a Mockingbird places a name to not only a face but also to a race. Racial prejudice comes from ignorance. For many in the white community, especially in rural areas in the South or even the suburbs of the North, daily contact with African Americans might have been nonexistent.(Shields, 1998 p. 183) This will often times lead to misunderstandings as well as stereotypes leaking into the minds of those who would otherwise have befriended a member of another race but due to a lack of contact and therefore understanding, allows himself to be overrun by these racist assumptions of a race. In this movie, Atticus reminds the members of the jury as well as the American public, that erroneous assumptions have serious consequences: “Confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption, the evil assumption that all Negros lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women. An assumption that one associates with minds of their caliber, and which is in itself, gentlemen, a lie, which I do not need to point out to you. And so, a quiet, humble, respectable Negro, who has had the unmitigated temerity to feel sorry for a white woman, has had to put his word against two white peoples. The defendant is NOT GUILTY, but somebody in this courtroom is.” (Mulligan, 1962) There may have been people in the audience, in movie theatres all across the country that may have disagreed with that assertion because they had never known an African American, except through the racist jokes and stories that their friends may have told. That was their only access to African Americans and as a result, their opinion towards African Americans was incorrect. One of the greatest accomplishments that To Kill a Mockingbird has is the ability for Americans to rethink their own opinions on race and to help prepare for a dialogue on race that was going to touch almost every aspect of American society, to one degree or another during the 1960’s.
The other message is that it is noble for one to stand up for their beliefs. “Atticus knows that his defense of Tom Robinson is a lost cause. Yet, he still defends him with the same passion that he would have given to anybody else, even a white man of means and a greater chance of receiving an acquittal.” (Shields, 1998 p. 119) This is what helps to endure the character of Atticus Finch as one of the most beloved in American cinema. Not only was Gregory Peck’s performance amazing but there have been other great performances by past actors. However, it is these great performances that have a bigger and more important message associated with them that helps to endure their performances, not only to the audiences of their day but which will stand the test of time. The belief in a noble goal, despite the knowledge that such beliefs will yield only negative results from the majority, yet does not deter those beliefs and the sacrifices associated, gives a positive message to contemporary audiences, forty five years after the movie was made. Its effect has not diminished over time.
The narrator of the movie as well as the book is Atticus’s daughter Scout. She is an inquisitive young girl who attempts to understand her father as well as the motivations behind the trial of Tom Robinson. Since her mother died when she was really too young to remember him, she relies upon Jem’s account of her mother as well as whatever Atticus can tell her about her mother. However, Atticus’s personality is not overt and he finds it difficult to express his feelings except in the courtroom. Therefore, Scout needs to be the one to narrate the book as well as the movie. “Even though it is Scout as an adult that is narrating the story in both the book and the movie, it is to the benefit of the audience but also to Scout’s own benefit that she be allowed to narrate the story since in the process, she can better understand a father and a community which, at the time, she found confusing.” (Pullman, 1991 p. 89) And there is not doubt that Atticus is able to make an impact on Scout. This is never more relevant than in the racial feelings that Scout has and that it is much more innocent than that of her peers. This comes from the guidance that Atticus gives his children. In one passage, Atticus tells his children: “The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.” (Lee, 1999 p. 179) In the 1930’s, such ideas must have been so foreign to Scout, that she could not help but remember them thirty years after they were said. They came from a father that was a source of continuing puzzlement and reverence, all at the same time.
To Kill a Mockingbird, in both book and movie form, is not only a great work of art, but is also an important work or art which serves the interests of all those who are interested in equal treatment under the law and a level playing field for all. Even though the setting of the movie and book are thirty years in the past, its issues were as alive in the South during the 1930’s as it was in the 1960’s. Hopefully, African Americans no longer have to face such trials and fear for their life, as long as American wrestles with race and questions of race, To Kill a Mockingbird will not only be a good film; one to study in history classes in order to understand troubles long passed, but to understand the progress that the country has made in race relations as well as what remains necessary for contemporary and future generations need to accomplish in order to ensure that everyone is free from racial prejudice and its poisonous effects upon the human psyche.
Bernard, C. (2003) Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Lucent Books
Lee, H. (1999) To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Harper Collins
Mulligan, R (1962) To Kill a Mockingbird. Universal Pictures.
Pullman, G. (1991). The Importance of To Kill a Mockingbird. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Schlesinger, A. (2002) A Thousand Days New York: Mariner Books
Shields, C. (1998) Mockingbird: A Portrait of Race. New York: Premier Books.
Wolper, D. (1961) The Making of a President. New York: United Artists