THE TOP 28: #18, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
Gregory Peck: Atticus Finch
Brock Peters: Tom Robinson
Frank Overton: Sheriff Heck Tate
Mary Badham: Scout
Phillip Alford: Jem
John Megna: Dill Harris
Robert Duvall: Boo Radley
Screenplay by Horton Foote (based on the novel by Harper Lee)
Directed by Robert Mulligan
"...but temember, it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
"Well, I reckon because mockingbirds don't do anything else but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat people's gardens, don't rest in the corncrib, they don't do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us."
The American Film Institute in 2003 released their list of the 50 Greatest Heroes and Villains in the history of movies. The top spot was awarded not to Indiana Jones or Superman, nor was it reserved for the likes of James Bond or Robin Hood. According to AFI, the greatest hero in cinema is the southern liberal lawyer Atticus Finch from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. He is assigned to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white girl. We've heard a lot of bemoaning lately about the loss of due process when someone is charged. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is set in the rural Alabama town of Maycomb in 1932. Tom Robinson is believed to be guilty before his day in court even starts. To be a white man in a predominantly racist white community defending a poor black man against rape charges isn't the main credential for Atticus's heroism. It's his empathy.
Atticus Finch is held in high regard in the town of Maycomb. He is a man of strong principles and convictions, as well as a soft-spoken voice of reason. He represents a kind of moral compass for the community. The African-American citizens respect him and seem to view him as an advocate. He is willing to absorb scorn from the white community by taking on the Tom Robinson case. Yet, he avoids judgment of them. He instead chooses to recognize people are made up of good and bad qualities. Some may view this as weakness because a racist is a racist, after all. Atticus never wavers, though.
This commitment to looking for good in others is an ideal eventually passed to his children, who form a connection with the strange Boo Radley. Empathy is a trait that can be acquired and taught. When I first read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Atticus's empathy was what endeared me. I don't understand racism. I lack the ability to understand it. I even lack the desire to have the ability to understand it. It's offensive to me and I can't fathom what possesses someone to view a different race as inferior. I struggle with empathy for those who practice racism.
Viewing TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD from our supposedly 21st century "woke" perspective is problematic. Atticus becomes the white savior and too easily accepts the abhorrent behavior of his white neighbors. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was released in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. The story takes place during a time less informed than ours. How are we to deal with these characters in 2018? I think it goes back to Atticus and his willingness to exercise the power of empathy. He can't change the minds of his fellow white citizens in Maycomb. The hate is too ingrained. He can only control his own behavior and hope that it serves as a model to others, especially his children. They are the ones who will carry on his message.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD contains many quotable lines and the novel even more so. When I read first read it, one passage stood out to me. Hearing Gregory Peck deliver it with wisdom and gentle humanity solidified at as a personal mantra:
"If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."