Synopsis: Atticus Finch, a lawyer in the Depression-era South, defends a black man against an undeserved rape charge, and his children against prejudice.
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Who chose it: Leah
Why I chose it: I wanted to watch this film because the last time I had seen it in full, I was about twelve years old. Having since read the book years later and now getting to experience the story again through my adult eyes- I knew I would take away more from the movie now than I had then. I also knew Brent hadn’t seen it yet and I think it’s a movie everyone should see at least once.
I tend to get nervous about films from the 1960s that tackle racism as a subject, mostly because my experience is that racism is a subject that requires the ability to have conversations in a morally ambiguous context. Films are difficult to create morally ambiguous contexts and while there are examples of great films that delve deeply into these conversations, Hollywood didn’t start making many mainstream motion pictures with room for moral ambiguity until the 1970s. Despite my nervousness, my reaction to this film was surprise. Once we started watching, nearly an hour passed before I realized I hadn’t checked my phone or even taken a drink of water – I was completely engrossed in the story of this small family.
The film excels in nearly every technical category. The acting – especially from the two child leads, but even in all of the supporting cast – is superb. The screenplay aids greatly. In particular, I was struck by the power of the parting shot spoken by the film’s main antagonist Bob Ewell to Atticus Finch as he leaves the courthouse, “What kind of man are you? You’ve got children of your own!” In a film that doesn’t shy away from grandiose statements, this small line from the town drunk reveals so much about the worldview of himself and those like him. Lastly, the cinematography is brilliant, especially when making use of shadows and the black-and-white scheme (a choice made intentionally – the film was released a year after the colorful “West Side Story”).
I have only one small technical critique, which is that the film itself is essentially two films, part slice-of-life story and part courtroom drama. The two parts are thinly connected by the story of Jem & Scout’s relationship with Boo Radley. Once the courtroom drama advances in full, the story very immediately shifts perspective to Atticus, Jem & Scout reduced to cutaway shots and Boo Radley long forgotten. While both parts of the film are engaging, I enjoyed the first half more than the second (my favorite scene being Scout’s innocent and unwitting defense of her father at the jail).
But a film from this setting – particularly its setting in history – is not without flaw. I have but two items to note. First, Atticus Finch is praised as one of the most morally centered heroes in American film history, but should we not flinch at his open questioning of the truth of an alleged rape victim’s story (is he justified because he is right?). Second, when Thomas Robinson is killed, the film lingers on Finch, showing only Thomas’ family for a brief moment before transitioning to a confrontation between Bob Ewell and Atticus Finch. These concerns do not disqualify the film’s message, but it’s worth noting that a film about race situates its conflict primarily between white men.
These concerns notwithstanding, I think the film itself is fantastic. I believe this film is deserving of the praise it receives.
Watching this movie a second time- I come to the same conclusion of just how relevant Harper Lee’s story still is 55 years later. Even though one could argue that racism is less prevalent in today’s society than it was in 1932- we see how it affects the community of Maycomb much as it continues to affect our own (fear and ignorant hatred of “the other”). My second viewing offered some new perspectives on the characters and the movie itself:
Scout Finch may be one of my favorite literary characters. She is smart, honest, and caring. She’s also an unapologetic tomboy and a fantastic female protagonist. There are instances in which she is told/forced to be more “like a lady” but ultimately, she doesn’t change herself for anyone. She’s praised for who she is. Her father Atticus doesn’t try to change her (other than discouraging her from fighting- but not because it’s unladylike) and encourages her to ask questions, read more, and learn. This is pretty rare treatment of a female character in a 1960’s movie.
A favorite scene of mine involving Scout is when she unwittingly dissuades the men of the town from enacting violence against Atticus and Tom Robinson at the jail. We know this is not her intention- but we watch and are touched by how a child’s simple and genuine words can change the angry mob’s mind. It is one of many examples in the film of how words can be more disarming than violence.
Another scene I love is when Scout finally meets the infamous Boo Radley. This is one of the finest examples of acting I have ever seen. She looks at Boo, mystified- trying to determine who this man is and why she’s never seen him before. She looks at him a little longer. His face softens as he stares back- and a look of slow realization comes across her face. We see a look of disbelief, happiness, and wonder as she slowly says “Hey, Boo” like she’s meeting an old friend for the first time.
Something I appreciate about the film is how not only does Scout’s perception of Boo change, but so does the audience’s. Even though I’d seen this before and knew the truth about Boo, the movie is able to make me feel uneasy of him. Like the children, I’m frightened of him at first- every shot of his house gives me chills. The scene where Jem decides to creep up to his house to look through the window is utterly agonizing. But at the end, like Scout, I realize that there was nothing to be afraid of. As soon as I see him, I feel compassion for him. After they meet, Scout no longer refers to him as Boo, but his real name- Arthur. He’s not some terrifying creature to her anymore- he is a human being. The movie is able to convey this message with very few words and in a way that is deeply moving.
Next up: We’ll be hitting up “Fences” in the theatre (ooh, fancy!) tomorrow afternoon. Check back in a few days for our reactions.
Peace out, kids.