[Note: This essay has been revised to fix typographical and grammatical errors, and to repair or add reference links.]
When seemingly busy, upstanding citizens of a small town in the rural southern farming district of Maycomb, Alabama in 1932 make punishing a black man who cannot use his left shoulder a lot more important than their integrity, longstanding civic duties, or appreciation for principles of law, resounding power from movies so outstanding as To Kill a Mockingbird result from our lesson-driven and soul-searching voice within. Great stories only come from great conflicts between good and evil. Answering questions of how we do better is harder than exposing others’ prejudice. In To Kill a Mockingbird, the attorney simply faces the entire town’s conscience looking inside of the facts as they are rather than the emotions or politics quietly, fearfully driving irrational need for punishment. Sadly, the movie fails on many counts.
Quiet witness to racism sails through the movie as acceptable and expected, without blacks or anyone of significance easily examining the ways that it exists or is held in place. With making “reasonable progress” in this movie’s production and marketing, every participant was kowtowing in evil’s presence. To me, in our society, it was a worse thought to make the best movie for whites rather than real art that would challenge the soul.
Real quiet sacrifice was needed to address the issues that Tom faced for a fair trial. Token efforts so large that they were barely recognizable insidiously issue from the sheriff and judge. Witness quotes finding truth by perjury was never addressed. The corrupt system was never explored. Understanding how an entire society was corrupted was important. Not doing so remains a failure and condemns this make-believe film. We ominously wait for truth about these relations even today. The possessive nature of political alliances always seems to easily stop real communication.
Setting, Value Systems, Characters, Political Views, & Plot Issues
How this circumstance came about is seeded in American and European history. We see immediately in a local town how practices bred in inhuman policies only terribly leave really tragic local results, even as awfully law-driven and widely administered. Really, to willingly blame local prejudice is to avoid our forefather’s participation in slavery directly and indirectly. We see in this movie a poor, small town that may not have recovered from the ravages of the Civil War, suffers the terrible social witness of Jim Crow and Ku Klux Klan organizing to maintain social order 100 years after breeding legions of slaves, and wearily trying to reasonably earn farming revenues in years of the Great Depression.
“Reasonable” was something different before the Emancipation Proclamation. When slaves became citizens only 70 years before the setting of this movie, the social order was threatened and all were easily destitute with limited resources and fear of what the future would bring. Walkers in these shoes rightly worried about who and what they could trust. Poor loyalties across rising racial lines of division between new slave-based citizens and old white-power beliefs were righteously used to drive fear, and good souls easily went worlds from loving the neighbor. Knowledge of the facts lost its importance.
Real poverty existed in that time among everyone. Alabama was in the deep South and traces its relationship with slavery back to when English traders in slaves brought them to the loading docks and wharves of Mobile, Alabama, Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina. Since the Civil War, walkers found themselves wanting to re-enslave a population they always felt superior to, including the attorney. Horses, wagons and cars were mixed in the movie and dress seemed appropriate for everyone involved. Dialect was not as strong with a Southern drawl accent in the movie as I think it probably is in real life, and the word “nigger” was not used as fully in the movie as it likely would have been in the 1930s. It is never used by the judge or sheriff, which is highly unlikely in real life.
Making this background a movie story that would sell in white America required reaching into a community reasonably worlds away from moviegoers in America’s cities but long lasting enough in lessons. Only oases of white power would be fully removed from appreciating most of the scenes. Patient intelligence is the evidence playing against law enforcement’s local quiet need to please white constituents. Overt discrimination at the ballot box is lost from view. Welcome loyalties from the attorney’s knowing and good friends win what dialogue reasonably but artificially shows life at that time. That this would actually have happened is a real question and criticism of the movie.
To Kill a Mockingbird needed to sell to a white population. To do this it had to make white people feel good about themselves while watching a movie about good and evil in race relations set in the deep South during the height of poverty in the 20th century. To do that, it had to be “a racist fable of Worthy Black Man Saved By Saintly White Man.” (http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2010/07/warmly-embrace-racist-novel-to-kill.html) It’s foil had to be poor white people who city people in the 1960s could not relate to. It makes the audience of white people feel better than the white people who did not see things the way educated, more successful Atticus saw them. This also makes the movie a class weapon, and it uses African Americans as props to do it.
There was real targeting of blacks by whites, and these African Americans wanting justice through the police met serious deficiency in judgments in the courts. Times were much harder than the script describes. Here are my criticisms and secondary support about the setting, value systems, characters portrayed, and plot in To Kill a Mockingbird:
- Real dastardly truth would have been more quietly sinister than we saw in that whitewashed, shallow movie. Walter Cunningham teaches easily harder lessons when faced in real life. Easy lynching did happen back then.
- Without Sanctuary: lynching photography in America . . . documented more than 600 incidents of lynching. This landmark exhibition and study established that “lynchers tended to be ordinary people and respectable people, few of whom had any difficulties justifying their atrocities in the name of maintaining the social and racial order and the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race.” In two years of investigation, the exhibit researchers found no evidence of intervention by a white person to stop even a single lynching. (http://withoutsanctuary.org/)
- The Long Shadow of Little Rock is Daisy Bates’ memoir of the Little Rock High School desegregation crisis. In it, she discusses how difficult it was to find any white people who would help, and she also details how most of the few who helped were socially and/or financially destroyed by white society afterwards; one of the white people who helped even ended up committing suicide. She and Mildred Taylor, author of “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” agree on this. (More information about this book is available on Wikipedia
- In Black Like Me, author John Howard Griffin, a white man, changes his skin color to travel through the South and document his treatment in the early 1960s. He had to move to Mexico from Dallas to protect his family from death threats after publishing his book. He explains that in real life, during the Jim Crow South there was a certain decorum between whites in power and their black subjects. A black man didn’t look a white woman in the eye, and always had to tip his hat or lower his head in a respectful, submissive manner. No matter his age, he was always referred to as “Boy.” Here was a white lawyer working on their behalf (unheard of to most blacks) to clear Tom Robinson, and a subjugated mindset after yrs. of oppression would be just about right. The movie doesn’t really show this.
- Just as with Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, it was a white woman’s account that killed Emmett Till. The movie whitewashes Tom’s death and plays the audience for dupes. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmett_Till)
- The Scottsboro Boys are another example of perhaps the truest words in the movie, about a black man kissing a white woman. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottsboro_Boys
- Atticus Finch would not have been as depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird even if he had existed with the morals he was depicted as having. The noble, persistent, obstinate activism of Atticus Finch — which wins the collective respect of the town’s black people — is a soothing white fantasy of a later time when the movie was made. But in truth, the movie’s noble, white-knight hero has no basis in reality, and the common white focus on the heroism of Atticus Finch distracts attention from the pervasiveness of 1930s white-supremacist’ solidarity among ordinary white people. A huge opportunity is wasted for real, constructive contribution here. Support for my view is:
- In the 1890s, after 3 friends were lynched, African American Ida Wells began to write about and fight against lynching. She continued this fight for many years–during which the only whites that openly supported her were Europeans. She even had to leave her home & family after white run newspapers printed calls for her to be lynched or otherwise murdered for speaking out against lynching. This is not much different from drug traffic in Mexico today. Ida Wells was a Civil Rights activist & feminist. http://www.amazon.com/Ida-Sword-Campaign-Against-Lynching/dp/0060797363
- In the 1930s, shouldn’t Atticus be getting a cross burned on his lawn the minute he treats a black man with respect or is willing to help him against a white adversary?
- “Mildred Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” is a beautiful response to the oh-so-noble heroism of Atticus Finch. Taylor’s Mr. Jamison is an anti-racist white lawyer who is a perfectly recognizable stand-in for Atticus; Mr. Jamison even tries to stop a lynching at the end of the book. However, because he’s anti-racist, he has no social standing whatsoever among white people in the town; additionally, because he’s white, he has too much power over black people (even if he’s striving not to use it) to be trusted or loved by the black people in town. They respect him, in a distant sort of way, but they cannot afford to be caught trusting him, and they don’t. The scene where Mr. Jamison tries to stop the lynching is night-and-day from the scene in To Kill a Mockingbird. Because of Mr. Jamison’s anti-racism, he does not have the social and moral authority in the town to be able to turn a lynch mob back by looking them in the eye. He’s able to slow them down, but that’s about it.” StuffWhitePeopleDo blogspot (opens in new window), ibid.; http://thebestnotes.com/booknotes/Roll_Of_Thunder/Roll_Of_Thunder_Hear_My_Cry02.html.
- Research takes us to even deeper poverty than the movie displayed to its audience.
- “During the height of the Depression, the number of lynching’s grew in direct proportion to the decrease in the economic stability of the South . There are several instances in the 1930s when black men were killed before they were put on trial. For example, in 1931 a man in Birmingham, Alabama accused of rape was an invalid and not able to commit the crime. The accuser’s brother however, shot the man and was never arrested for murder. The film accurately shows the small town ethics that governed people in the South in the 1930s. The idealized public society must be upheld, at the risk of rejecting the law. If the social order was ever disrupted, men felt they were obligated to use force to preserve the social norms embedded in society.” http://fan.tcm.com/_The-Historical-Accuracy-in-To-Kill-a-Mockingbird-1962/blog/414776/66470.html?createPassive=true
- During the Depression, over farming had exhausted the soil, and tenement farming worsened the conditions. These worsened soil conditions and falling cotton process drastically effected economic situations for most blacks and whites in the South. This economic reality makes the movie’s setting a dream stereotype to sell theater tickets rather than a real backdrop for exploring real problems. Essentially, blacks did not trust whites and whites did not trust blacks.
- Earning money and walking in the black’s shoes was not considered as a way to sell movies successfully at that time or since. In respect to the black man and community, the movie was very shallow. Many think it is a white man’s movie for white audiences to feel good about how times have changed. http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2010/07/warmly-embrace-racist-novel-to-kill.html , including the notes below. The book is banned in many Canadian schools.
- The mockingbird theme and not harming a harmless creature is seen by some as an argument that just as one should not treat one’s horse, ox or dog cruelly, one should not treat one’s Blacks cruelly. The movie does not challenge the insidious conception of superior versus inferior ‘races’, the notion of those meant to rule versus those meant to be ruled. What it attacks are the worst — particularly violent — excesses of the racist social order, leaving the racist social order itself intact.
- All of the Black characters were stereotypes as passive victims. Ida: A Sword Among Lions, by Patricia Giddings, is available on Amazon.com (opens in new window), by Patricia Giddings shows that blacks never were poor passive sheep waiting for a white savior in Atticus, but actively fought for their rights as equal human beings.
The Americans of African descent acknowledging of their troubles, leaving white audiences unable to experience anything bitter or beautiful about their situation, assumes sincere neglect as the death of Tom wounds sensitivities but soon seems less important than the awful danger to the attorney’s daughter Scout. To repeat, the movie fails miserably to focus on any black characters except as props in a white story.
Many stereotypes assume roles in this movie, from the drunk Ewell to his cowered daughter who was also uneducated but had lots of children, to the old, old realities of treachery among police, wasted sense to a white jury, reality of poverty among whites and African Americans. When Cunningham had hickory nuts and tried always to receive what credit he could, we were aware this little town setting was different from a walker’s city and that times were lean.
The Sheriff’s willingness to mask Bob Ewell’s death sets up any walkers’ expectation that Tom’s death likely was falsified, too. That Gregory Peck did not see that played him and his audience as dupes. Roger Ebert, the film critic, saw the movie the same way that I do. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/to-kill-a-mockingbird-2001
Yes, easy stereotypes across white lines were not serious examinations. Social status and moral goodness were correlated as an easy formula for audiences. History shows this movie tackled issues of good vs. evil as a white man’s fable, especially pleasing to white liberals. Issuing from the wanting words of the attorney were the words about whites kissing blacks. That single issue was most appropriately dealt with. It was anathema then and continues to be today for some.
Making movies in Hollywood is wanted with quiet declarations of principles to be happy. That there is goodness in all is a happy notion. Telling lies to do that is propaganda. To me this film is a puff piece for liberal professors in universities to waste time pretending to look like wonderful saviors of blacks when they secretly still harbor superiority over persons of other classes. Taking real human progress into account, we were no better off listening to Gregory actor’s prattle than were we to have quietly witnessed a hanging, except the hanging would have been more real. Only by dealing with truth joined in love could we have walked reliably, testily toward weary, wonderful peace. As successful financially as this movie was, it was a moral failure and a flop that may have punished us with liberal Lilly-livered liars.
December 15, 2013
Copyright John Smyth 2013