To Kill a Mockingbird: Racism in Film in the 1960’s
The 1960’s was a decade of radical social change and revolutionary attitude. While people were able to come together on many issues and influence positive change in our nation, racism was still a shaky platform for much of society. Because the ideas of hatred and inequality were deep rooted in so many people, the social activists in favor of an equal America faced a long and dangerous road toward change. Films of the decade seemed to either dance around the issue or come on too strong.
Robert Mulligan’s 1963 film adaption of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel found a balance between the two. To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the decade’s most successful films in dealing with race relations because of its clear cut definition of race relations and character motives, its exploration of themes that were relevant to the time, and its cinematic superiority to other films of the decade.
Not only was To Kill a Mockingbird one of the most loved films of the decade, it is one of the most widely enjoyed films of all time.
Although it is set almost thirty years prior to the sixties, the film’s confrontation of racism was far from outdated. It was one of the first movies to shed a light on race relations without making people too uncomfortable. While the issue of race should have made people more than just uncomfortable, the film realized that a toe in the water towards dealing with racism was much easier for society to accept than suggesting they jump in off the high dive. The 1963 film was shot in black and white, an incredible allusion to the indisputable nature of the characters.
According to Barry Keith Grant’s American Cinema of the 1960s textbook “the characters in the film are quite literally black and white: drooling, prejudiced hayseeds or tolerant understanding souls.” This was the easiest way to highlight the problems with members of society who tried to remain in the middle of the issue and not take a stance; they fell into the first category by default. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most important and influential civil rights activists of the 1960s, paraphrased the work of Dante Alighieri when talking about neutrality; “The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”1 He went on to add, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps perpetrate it.
He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”2 For many years, people thought they were doing the right thing by remaining neutral. One can imagine their thought process assured them that not taking a stance was better than fighting for the wrong side. To Kill a Mockingbird put an end to that mentality. Because of its clearly defined view of only two sides to racism, the film forced audiences to reevaluate what side they fell under. People were forced to decide what they believed in, instead of blending in to anonymity. MLK was able to clearly epitomize the unsettling reality of those who chose to remain neutral: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”3 Despite its success, some critiques were unhappy with the film’s portrayal of blacks. In a review by Roger Ebert, he explains his dissatisfaction with the film’s portrayal of its black characters. “The black people in this scene are not treated as characters, but as props, and kept entirely in long shot.
The close-ups are reserved for the white hero and villain.”4 While this observation is true and indeed somewhat problematic, it is also a reason for the film’s success. As previously stated, the film avoids shocking and alarming convictions that would make the audience too uncomfortable and retreat back into their blissful ignorance. Looking back, it may appear as though the film is too forgiving when it comes to racism, but it understood the cautions of society and encapsulates the innocence of the early sixties. The film pushes the limits just far enough as to entice its audiences to pick and side and take a stance in a way that they can understand and accept. And by only presenting two clear choices, it forces the audience to really ask themselves who they would stand up for: Mayella Ewell or Tom Robinson? What some critics failed to recognize in respect to the seemingly cookie-cutter characters, was the undeniable similarities between audience members and the people in the film.
Atticus Finch, a widowed considerably wealthy white lawyer, was able to pull reluctant audiences in by being the ideal father figure. His spunky daughter Scout was both lovable and endearing. She forms her own opinions throughout the film with the guidance of her accepting father. Atticus also has an equally charming son Jeremy, referred to as “Jem”. People easily related to and admired the picturesque but unique family, which made the films impact immensely stronger. While it is unfortunate that the white characters are perceived as the heroes and the black characters almost background noise, society was hesitant to support a black hero. Charles Bukowski, an American author, once stated, “I guess the only time people think about injustice is when it happens to them.” By making Atticus the center of the narrative, the film was able to develop a relatable story that allowed audiences to easier think of themselves in Atticus’s situation.
This was especially important for people who hadn’t experienced racism first hand or didn’t have a personal connection to it that was motivating them to act and promote change. To Kill A Mockingbird’s reserved representation of race is often compared to The Intruder, a 1962 film that deals with race in a starkly contrasted way. Where To Kill A Mockingbird subdues its condemnation of racism, The Intruder has an obvious and unsettling parallel to the situation in Oxford, Mississippi that same year5. James Meredith, a black military veteran, attempted to apply to the university known as Ole Miss. Because of a former court ruling, Brown vs. The Board of Education, public schools were required to be integrated. President John F. Kennedy, a crusader for civil rights, had frequent discussions with Mississippi’s governor Ross Barnett about protecting Meredith and ensuring his safety, but the only thing the Governor ensured was that he would keep the school segregated.
On September 29th, the tensions broke out into a terrifying and violent riot at the university, not at all unlike the climatic mob scene at the end of The Intruder, which resulted in two civilian deaths and 70 injuries. The following day, Meredith became the first African-American student to be enrolled at the university.6 Because of the uncomfortable parallels to reality, The Intruder was arguably the most honest film about race relations to be produced that year. However, To Kill a Mockingbird won over audiences nation wide and pushed, even if only a gentle push, for new dialogue and action concerning race relations in America. To Kill A Mockingbird may be set in the 1930’s, but 1960’s audiences easily relate to the themes presented. Not only do the film’s events seem representative of real occurrences, the ideas conveyed clearly comment on 1960’s society.
The film explores the theme of innocence in multiple ways. It deals with a child’s naïve view of the world and how that is easily changed. It also presents the idea that there is a responsibility for society to protect the innocent. The film examines the problem of ignorance and how perceptions of people should not take precedent over the facts. “Loss of innocence” is a commonly used literary and cinematic theme, while the “responsibility to protect the innocent” is less frequently used but no less important. To Kill A Mockingbird explores these themes strongly with Scout’s character. Seemingly oblivious to racism, Scout is not like other average children.
She is intelligent and compassionate, with a strong moral compass (thanks to the skillful parenting of her father Atticus). Even with these admirable qualities, she still captures the innocence involved with being a child. The family has a black cook named Calpurnia, who, before the trial, is their bridge between their world and the black community. Scout isn’t exposed to the injustice Calpurnia presumably experiences when she leaves the Finch home until her father agrees to defend a black man by the name of Tom Robinson. In the film, one of the most valuable lessons presented by Atticus’s defense of Tom Robinson is the responsibility to protect the innocent. This lesson is presented in both the courtroom and the real world.
Throughout the trial of Tom Robinson, Jem’s naivety and lack of exposure to the racism surrounding him leads him to believe that justice will prevail no matter the circumstances. Atticus’s clear and obvious reasoning is a shining beacon of hope for the black community and his son Jem, who all share Atticus’s confidence in the courts to remain unbiased. Atticus’s final speech, which is one of the most famous monologues in film history, serve as an attempt to remind the jury that a courtroom sees no color and no class: In this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.
I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system. That is no ideal to me…It is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty. In the name of God, believe Tom Robinson. (Foote, 119)
One would hope that Atticus’s belief in a moral obligation to defend Tom Robinson and the need for a truly blind justice system would influence audiences. Sadly, the reality of the 1960’s was not much different than To Kill A Mockingbird’s 1930’s. Members of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s had no reason to trust in the law or its courts. Just as the law fails Tom, it also failed Medgar Evars. Evars, the NAACP field secretary in 1963, was shot in the head in front of his home in Jackson, Mississippi by White Citizens’ Council member Byron De La Beckwith.7 Evars was taken to the hospital and was refused service due to his skin color until eventually being treated. He died fifty minutes later. Beckwith was tried twice and both juries, who were compromised entirely of white males, were unable to reach a verdict. Later that year in Birmingham, Alabama, Ku Klux Klan members bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church.8 Four young black girls were killed and twenty-two people were injured. Once again, the law was not a protector of the innocent lives that were lost.
Instead, Robert Edward Chambliss, who was witnessed placing the bomb under the church steps, faced only a 100-dollar fine and six months in jail. The tragic murders and racist judicial systems in the film and 1960’s reality were a tragic reminder that society had abandoned the responsibility to protect the innocent. Both the film and the terrible events transpiring around the nation served as a prompt to renew society’s belief in this responsibility. “For the rest of the nation, the Birmingham church bombing should serve to goad the conscience. The deaths…in a sense are on the hands of each of us.” (Editorial, The Milwaukee Sentinel, September 16th, 1963)9 In the film, Jem was crushed when prejudice and bigotry won during Tom Robinson’s trial. The moment the verdict was read could be considered the moment that Jem lost his innocence. He had now been exposed to the unnatural hatred his community felt towards people that knew nothing about. The film explores the idea of ignorance in respect to its theme of the loss of innocence.
The community views Tom Robinson the same way that the children view Boo Radley at the beginning of the film; they fear him because they don’t understand him and they ridicule him because they think that it is harmless. The children’s idea that their mockery of Boo is harmless directly parallels the idea of 1960’s communities that their discrimination towards blacks was harmless. Scout learns that her actions towards Boo were wrong and she learns a valuable lesson about acceptance. When the narrator (an older Scout) says, “Boo was our neighbor,” it seems insignificant but it adds another dimension to the message of protecting the innocent. It reminds audiences that often times the people we discriminate against are part of our community and that should be reason enough to be kind to them. Boo Radley and Tom Robinson serve as a representation of anyone who is discriminated against by people who are ignorant towards the truth.
The way in which the children view Boo Radley as a monster is reflexive of the way the townspeople view Tom Robinson. Although Tom is not the main character of the story, the viewer is able to place themselves in his shoes and better see life from his standpoint. At the end of the film, Scout walks Boo Radley home. She stands on his porch and looks out towards her neighborhood and pictures what life looks like to Boo. The idea of “standing in someone else’s shoes” is commonly suggested, but not commonly practiced. By understanding what life is like for Boo and having compassion towards him, Scout makes more progress than a majority of the adults in her town. To Kill A Mockingbird is an amazing example of how a film can create emotion and present important issues through its representation of certain themes. The film successfully creates the feeling nostalgia in its viewers by depicting childhood in a warm and comforting manner.
Because the viewer is so enticed by the way Scout and Jem’s youth is portrayed, and perhaps even reminded of their own, it makes their loss of innocence that much more devastating. By the end of the film, Scout and her brother had both experienced loss of innocence. Their optimistic perception of a world that was a moral and fair place was tarnished by the exposure to devastating social injustices. The film’s rare ability to both be widely loved by countless audiences as well as present the hard truth about racism in America can be credited to its outstanding cinematic qualities. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won three of them.10 It was deemed “culturally significant” by the United States Library of Congress and chosen to be preserved in the National Film Registry.11 Harper Lee, the author of the novel on which the film is based, only had approving remarks to share about the film adaption. She considers the film a “work of art.”12 It is obvious that she is not alone with this opinion, and for many good reasons. The film’s most obvious triumph is its acting. Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch is one of the most famous in movie history.
Peck concealed his natural attractiveness to completely embody the parental qualities of the character. He personifies the dignity and intelligence that Lee had created for Atticus in the novel. Peck received an Academy Award for Best Actor for this role.13 The combination of the incredible character that is Atticus with Peck’s legendary portrayal was no doubt the inspiration behind countless legal careers and is still held in high esteem by anyone who values the practice of law. While Peck’s performance is undeniably brilliant, the film was remarkably enhanced by three young actors. Mary Badham, Phillip Alford and John Menga brought Scout, Jem and Dill to life on the big screen. Their unquestionable raw talent brought a different kind of quality to the film. Not only did their noteworthy performances help audiences connect to the film on a deeper level, it also served as a clear example of director Robert Mulligan’s expertise.
The black and white film’s stylistic elements enhance the story while simultaneously creating a work of art. Lighting was a key element in creating the atmosphere and the way in which the audience saw the film. To Kill A Mockingbird has soft lighting, which gives it a nostalgic feeling. The use of black and white relates heavily to the narrative. The lack of color gives the characters more definition instead of the scenery. It also visually presents the theme of a straight line division between the two races; a town that is literally separated into “black and white.” The music and screenplay are two crucial elements in creating a film. Elmer Bernstein created the score for the film, which is held in high regard as one of the decade’s most classic film scores. It successfully adds to the film’s theme of childhood nostalgia but under the surface, has a haunting and unforgettable quality. The screenplay adaption of the film was written by Horton Foote. The task of creating a screenplay from a Pulitzer Prize winning novel could be considered daunting. However, Foote related personally to the story, having grown up in Wharton, Texas, in the 1920’s14.
The artistic achievements of the film can be largely attributed to the art directors and the cinematographer. The director of photography, Russel Harlen, received an Academy Award nomination for his work on this film.15 Throughout the movie, Harlen employs the use of point-of-view shots. Atticus’s final remarks to the jury on the Tom Robinson trial is one of the most famous scenes in movie history. Harlen shot this scene in a way that makes Atticus appear to not only be giving his speech to the jury, but also the audience in the theater. Although Atticus does not make direct eye contact with the camera, the angle makes it clear whom the speech is intended for.
This scene most likely made its largest impact in the south, where the artistic execution coupled with the content of the speech would really strike a cord. Alexander Golitzen and Henry Bumstead served as art directors for the film. They successfully created sets in Hollywood that were both historically accurate and beautiful interpretations of Alabama in 1932.16 The film’s ability to transcend generations and present the problem of social injustice is due to its cinematic achievement. Because To Kill A Mockingbird both entertained audiences and held their attention through its visual excellence, it was able to move people emotionally and prompt them to take action.
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