Monday, December 2, 2013

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: To Kill A Mockingbird

Full disclosure: this isn't the first time I've seen "To Kill A Mockingbird". However, after considering the circumstances under which I first approached it, I felt it was appropriate to include it on my "List of Shame". To explain, my initial viewing of this film was about 10 years ago. I was much less advanced in my cinephilia and I prejudged it as a lame black and white movie that couldn't possibly be interesting (it was a supplement to the required reading in high school English Literature). This time around though, it became clear that I made the right choice in revisiting this classic. It truly felt like I was seeing it with fresh new eyes.
As you may already know, "To Kill A Mockingbird" is based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee. It's a story about equal rights and justice, focusing on a court case where a black man is falsely charged with raping a white woman. At the center of the plot however, is a white lawyer named Atticus Finch (played by Gregory Peck), who passionately defends this accused man out of a sense of moral duty. The setting is the American Depression-era South and as a result, it brings up themes of poverty and bigotry.
In assessing the effectiveness of this film, it's hard to separate it from the brilliant novel that inspired it. The film evokes a storybook quality throughout that strongly captures its literary source. Even though the narration is predominantly found only in the beginning and ending, it always feels like actual storytelling. Each scene is so exact and purposeful that you can easily imagine the storyboards or specific chapters used to develop the script.
To compare the film to a storybook doesn't do it justice though. One of the things that stood out to me this time was the harsh authenticity in portraying the era. The novel is often regarded as a "Great American Novel" in the way it captured the zeitgeist and this has been successfully translated to the screen. In some ways the film feels like your standard African-American Civil Rights story, but it's also unique in the way it portrays bigotry. Even without overtly depicting racially-motivated violence, the danger of uneducated, unemployed, racist alcoholics is palpable and terrifying. There are scenes where the lives of black citizens are threatened and the mere thought of what could happen is the stuff of nightmares. The hopelessness of the Depression seriously exacerbated the already troublesome environment of the pre-Civil Rights movement American South.
The truth of the matter is, almost all the inhabitants of this community are dirt poor and willfully ignorant. It's a situation that clearly doesn't bode well for a happy and fair society. Thankfully, there was an anomaly in this destitute system - Atticus Finch. In the history of memorable cinematic heroes, Finch sits firmly among the best. He is the ultimate role model, instilling strong values of compassion, tolerance and the importance of education in his two children. Even more impressive is that he "walks the walk". In standing up for justice and passionately defending a black man, he put himself at risk. For Atticus though, there was no other choice. "To Kill A Mockingbird" is told from the point of view of his daughter Scout and as you get to understand his character, you're likely to idolize him like she did. It takes a special performance to make a simple man seem like a superhero and that's exactly what we get here. Gregory Peck is simply perfect in the role. The character is unassuming and the subtlety in his acting indicates a true understanding of the character. With all the odds stacked against him, he maintains a quiet dignity and determination that is exemplary. In summary, he is the heart, mind and soul of the story.
The importance of Peck's performance in making the film watchable cannot be understated. The actors playing the bigots were so authentic that it often became quite discomfiting. Put these opposing views together though and you get a film of great poignancy and timeless relevance. From a general filmmaking standpoint too, it's just as brilliant. The film is warmly shot and it uses appropriately simple background music. The appealing storybook quality also has a lot to do with the great editing.
Overall, this is a beautifully realized literal adaptation. Robert Mulligan really did this book justice. Go watch this film and be inspired.

This film is part of my List of Shame.

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