To Kill A Mockingbird

Jul 3, 2002 at 12:00 am

“There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ’em all away from ya. That’s never possible.”

If anyone is equipped to adequately and objectively explain the complexities of the twisted actions of people, Atticus Finch can, even in the harsh realities of the Depression-era South.

On July 7 and 9, the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor will present a porthole back to a tough time in our history: the transcendent 1962 classic, To Kill A Mockingbird, directed by Robert Mulligan (Summer of ‘42 and Same Time, Next Year).

Over a bird’s-eye view of a sleepy little Southern town in the 1930s, a woman’s voice declares, “The day was 24 hours long, but it seemed longer. There’s no hurry, for there’s nowhere to go, and nothin’ to buy, no money to buy it with, although Maycomb, County had recently been told it had nothin’ to fear but fear itself ... That summer, I was 6 years old.”

That 6-year-old Scout (Mary Badham) and her older brother, Jem (Phillip Alford), live a Huckleberry Finn-like mischievous existence. They create excitement for themselves by sneaking around forbidden grounds and exaggerating realities — like their “bogeyman” talk about their mythicized next-door neighbor Boo Radley, who only comes out at night, eats raw squirrels and cats and drools through his yellow teeth. But Boo is the least of their worries when their lawyer-father Atticus decides to represent a local black man against white accusations of rape.

Based on Harper Lee’s semiautobiographical, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel published in 1960, the movie is part childhood adventure and part courtroom drama, and proved to be a shining paradigm of honor and virtue in the racially turbulent atmosphere of the ’60s. But there are other reasons why this film seems effectively to stick to people.

Jem and Scout don’t call for “Dad” or “Pop” — they call Atticus by his first name. It represents the mutual respect all three have for each other, an ideal parent-child relationship all of us dream of having. Atticus is cool, continually striving for objectivity in his explanations to the children — and he explains everything. He’s the perfect father inside an imperfect world, and who better to play the film’s tower of strength than Gregory Peck?

Whether he portrayed a priest, struggling to keep his Chinese parish intact in the 1944 film The Keys of the Kingdom, or a reporter posing to be Jewish in order to accurately write his story on anti-Semitism in 1947’s Gentleman’s Agreement, for most of his long career, Peck’s visage represented the face of integrity. Atticus Finch epitomized the Peck “handsome and fair-minded” persona, garnering him an Academy Award for Best Actor, alongside the film’s awards for art direction and Horton Foote’s true-to-the-book screenplay adaptation.

Peck so fit the role. And he starred in another American classic in 1962: Cape Fear, where, as in Mockingbird, he plays a lawyer whose honor and family are intricately bound to each other in a dangerous struggle. Whether against one psychotic man or a whole town blinded by bigotry, audiences looked to Peck’s stolid composure to lead them through the chaos, and he holds up to this day.

Atticus’ daughter believes him when he says, “Scout, there are some things that you’re not old enough to understand just yet.” But maybe it’s better that the kids don’t understand, because when an ugly mob of white men, hungry to lynch the black prisoner, approaches Atticus guarding the cell, it’s not muscle or gunshot that threaten the men, but a confrontation with innocence.

Against Atticus’ orders, the kids join him on his protective stoop in front of the ignorant throng and won’t leave. Scout sees a familiar face, “Hey, Mr. Cunningham!” The man turns away. In a relentless need to understand, Scout persists, “Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? You brought us some hickory nuts one early morning — remember? We had a talk.” She can’t understand why Cunningham won’t look at her and assumes she did something wrong. But Cunningham can’t stand seeing what he intends to do through her eyes.

It’s a powerful moment in which you can easily see why 9-year-old Badham earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. But both Badham and Alford hold the film easily in their true-blue, strong-willed performances. Combined with Peck and the trials of a small Southern town, To Kill A Mockingbird leaves you with a much-needed belief in hope, ignited anew by the eyes of children.

Showing exclusively at the Michigan Theater (603 E. Liberty, Ann Arbor), Sunday, July 7 and Tuesday, July 9. Call 734-668-TIME.

Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].