Where reason ends. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Directed by Robert Mulligan, and based on Harper Lee‘s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) simply tells a story about justice, in a way similar to Lumet‘s masterpiece 12 Angry Men, but different in overall tone. However, this is not a courtroom drama. This is a snapshot of injustice, bias, racial segregation, and a strong critique of ignorance. The cruel world of human prejudice is portrayed in the background of the life of children, who spend their days playing and enjoying their happy childhood. Children are running around, climbing trees, and playing with their toys, while black men are confined, waiting to be judged without sufficient evidence.

The movie, as in the novel, is told from the viewpoint of children.
The film, as in the novel, is told from the viewpoint of children.

The film is narrated by the adult Jean Louse Finch, nicknamed Scout (Mary Badham). She lived in a fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama in the early 1930s, with her brother Jeremy “Jem” Finch (Phillip Alford) and widowed father Atticus Finch, played by the magnificent Gregory Peck. Atticus is appointed to defend a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) accused of raping a white girl, and throughout the film, Atticus finds considerable doubt to believe the testimony of the alleged victim. However, in the spirit of racism in the day, the defendant is found guilty in front of an all-white male jury. But the story doesn’t end here, and it seems that it’s still going on today.

Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson, played by Gregory Peck and Brock Peters.

Atticus Finch is the epitome of justice and unbiased decision, a type of citizen we should all long to become. Peck gives the finest performance of his career, which was recognized by the Academy as well, awarding him with the Academy Award for Best Actor. Atticus represents morality, reason, and principle. He is kind yet strong. The courtroom scenes are not questioning whether there is some reasonable doubt, as in 12 Angry Men, they are clearly establishing the innocence of Tom Robinson. I disagree with Ebert who stated that this film tries to depict a white man as a hero, and black people are seen only in the background. The white savior narrative, similar to damsel-in-distress, is certainly present here, but this film was made in 1962, the tensions were still high and the civil rights movement was still going through its struggles. This is a film illustrating the awful past using metaphors for people of today. We are still surrounded by racial bigots, and the only way to get through them is probably using a man they could identify with (and that would, unfortunately, exclude women as well). And it’s a story seen through the eyes of children because they are also the ones who should be raised to respect and honor all living beings.

Atticus Finch: The defendant is not guilty – but somebody in this courtroom is. Now, gentlemen, in this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system – that’s no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality!

Russel Harlan‘s cinematography managed to capture the essence of Maycomb. It’s a tired old town, and the narration describes everything there is: the days were long and sometimes dull, there’s a lot of routine going on, and there’s no hurry. And yet, a person’s life is being decided in the background. That’s the difference between a child’s view and the world of adults, and this film depicts the memory of a child. Both of the child actors did their parts extremely well and you could really tell they were children from Maycomb, even if Maycomb never existed. And Alexander Golitzen and Henry Bumstead‘s art directing really created Maycomb. It was there and we were in it. The whole set was built on the Universal backlot for $225,000 and comprised more than thirty buildings, along with some Southern-style houses that were to be demolished to make way for a new Los Angeles freeway. The two received the Oscar for Best Art Direction.

The film's set design and art directing won the Academy Award. The whole fictional town of Maycomb was built from scratch
The film’s set design and art directing won the Academy Award. The whole fictional town of Maycomb was built from scratch.

Older Scout: Maycomb was a tired old town, even in 1932 when I first knew it. Somehow, it was hotter then. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning; ladies bathed before noon, after their 3 o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frosting from sweating and sweet talcum. The day was twenty-four hours long, but it seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go and nothing to buy… and no money to buy it with. Although Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself… That summer, I was six years old.

The film and the novel pinpoint the racial bias and prejudice in the adult world because racism is learned, and not inherent.
The film and the novel pinpoint the racial bias and prejudice in the adult world because racism is learned, and not inherent.

Walt Disney requested a private screening of the film, and stated: “That was one hell of a picture. That’s the kind of film I wish I could make.” And if there’s one thing we should relearn from both the novel and the hell of a picture is that omnipresent moral motive of do unto others. I don’t believe this to be a racist film, I believe this to be a film about omnipresent racism which is still here even if want to close our eyes.

Atticus: I remember when my daddy gave me that gun. He told me that I should never point it at anything in the house, and that he’d rather I’d shoot at tin cans in the backyard. But he said that sooner or later he supposed the temptation to go after birds would be too much, and that I could shoot all the blue jays I wanted, if I could hit ’em, but to remember it was a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Jem: Why?

Atticus: Well, I reckon because mockingbirds don’t do anything but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat people’s gardens, don’t nest in the corncribs. They don’t do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.



Banks, Taunya Lowell (2006). To Kill a Mockingbird (1962): Lawyering in an Unjust Society. Screening Justice – The Cinema of Law: Films of Law, Order and Social Justice (Strickland, et al., eds.).

Berardinelli, James. To Kill a Mockingbird (United States, 1962). ReelViews.net

Seekford, Brett (2016). To Kill a Mockingbird, The Help, and the Regendering of the White Savior. James Madison Undergraduate Research Journal 4(1): 7-12.

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