On this week's edition of Hit me with your best shot, we celebrate the great Gregory Peck for the centennial of his birth. We were given the option of writing about either of two most famous films ("To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Roman Holiday"), which just happen to be two of my all-time faves. As such, I couldn't pass up this excuse to re-watch them both. First up is a film that I consider to be one of cinema's finest adaptations ever - "To Kill a Mockingbird".
The last time I participated in "Hit Me", I wrote about my fascination with the Briony character in "Atonement". And once again, I found myself intrigued by the villains of "To Kill a Mockingbird", in particular Mayella and Bob Ewell. When we think of "To Kill a Mockingbird", we immediately remember two iconic characters - the misunderstood Arthur "Boo" Radley and the heroic Atticus Finch, played by Robert Duvall and Gregory Peck. But the film would hardly have been as impactful without the work of Collin Wilcox Paxton and James Anderson. Their roles are the sort of everyday bad guys we take for granted, but they are absolutely brilliant in the way they capture the subtext of their racist attitudes without mocking their redneck personas with cartoonish buffoonery. As Atticus states during the pivotal courtroom scene, Mayella is "the victim of cruel poverty and ignorance."
And it's this scene and Paxton's performance as Mayella which contain my choice for Best Shot...
"I got somethin' to say. And then I ain't gonna say no more. He took advantage of me. An' if you fine, fancy gentlemen ain't gonna do nothin' about it, then you're just a bunch of lousy, yella, stinkin' cowards, the - the whole bunch of ya, and your fancy airs don't come to nothin'. Your Ma'am'in' and your Miss Mayellarin' - it don't come to nothin', Mr. Finch!"
What makes this screenplay so great is the way it can simultaneously touch on the novel's rich collection of themes related to class, race, education and gender. In this instance of desperation, it's interesting to note how Mayella never invokes the trigger N-word (though her "yella" insult paints them as negro sympathizers), but rather speaks out against the class and gender divide that would exist under normal circumstances. Indeed, although all the citizens of Depression-era Maycomb are effectively poor, the Ewells would always be seen as untrustworthy white trash compared to these "fine, fancy gentlemen". But furthermore, she hints at the fact that these Southern "Miss Mayellarin" gentlemen would probably lose their politeness and chivalry in a regular rape case, reluctant to side with the woman. The wording of her rage could almost be transferred wholesale if her abusive father was rightfully accused.
But this scene poignantly illustrates how normal behaviour goes out the window when a black man is accused of raping a white woman. As Ta-Nehisi Coates explains in his award-winning book "Between the World and Me", a chasm exists in America between black and white people regardless of social status. Put simply, there's a difference between being "black poor" and "white poor". So as a black man, it was inconceivable for Tom to feel sorry for Mayella, no matter how true it was. And he therefore became the easy scapegoat for her abuse, trumping all sense of reason and the film's clearly established socioeconomic structure.
On a side note ("To Kill a Mockingbird" always gets my mind buzzing), it's noteworthy that this Best Shot episode coincides with the finale of "American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson". Both Mockingbird and ACS center around the trial of a black man accused of assaulting a white woman, and both end up being much more focused on race rather than actually finding the true perpetrator. In the case of ACS however, it works in the favor of O.J. Simpson, precisely by appealing to the white guilt stored up for decades from racist incidents like those we see in Mockingbird.