Synopsis: Kids bother their dad while he tries to do his job…. and/or…. A widowed lawyer raising his two children in 1930’s Alabama defends a man in a contentious case.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a big deal film released in 1962 based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a sister and brother, six-year-old Scout (aka Jean Louise) and ten-year-old Jem, who drive their lawyer dad to distraction while he’s trying to make a living and defend a client in a shocking case.
The dad, Atticus Finch, has his work cut out for him. His client, Tom Robinson, is a black man accused of sexual assault by a white woman. It’s established early on that Tom is innocent, but it’s the Jim Crow-governed Deep South and the jury of “peers” is all white and predisposed to the prejudices of their time and place.
But if there is one person in town who can provide a vigorous defense for a client, it’s the guy without a Southern accent. Atticus radiates decency and intelligence. The kids don’t appreciate these qualities. Instead they complain about their dad being “old” even though, as personified by Gregory Peck, he could easily be featured in that year’s “Alabama Attorney” calendar. Jem even has the temerity to upbraid his father for not playing football like the other dads. Sorry, Jem, that your dad doesn’t want to get his brains scrambled on the gridiron.
The little girl, Scout, at least allows that their old dad is very good at explaining anyone or anything. Their neighbors and housekeeper/babysitter, Calpurnia, try to get the kids to respect Atticus, to no avail. In fact, they don’t even call him ‘dad,’ but Atticus. Maybe because his name is so cool. Understandable. But what these dumb kids don’t understand is that their dad is learned and kindly and deserves a little respect. We can appreciate that and the fact that he’s a zaddy, wearing his confidence and seasoned good looks with panache.
So… all summer long these little rapscallions tear through town at all hours of the day or night. They have no respect for anyone’s privacy or property. Neighbor Boo Radley is a frequent target. They idiotically suppose that he is some sort of ghoul who stays hidden by day and lurks around at night eating varmints and peering into people’s windows.
Ironically they can’t see the ghoul right in front of their eyes… They have befriended some creepy kid named Dill who visits his aunt each summer. He looks like a vampire and dresses like it is the 1860’s, wearing knickers and silky knee socks. Dill informs them that he’s “little…but old.” Listen up, kids! He’s telling you that he’s some undead kid who was vampirized during the Civil War. Dumb as a bag of rocks, they don’t catch on. Fortunately summer ends and Dill leaves; presumably he takes his bat form and wings it to Transylvania.
Maybe now that the school year has started Atticus can get some work done instead of always having to track down his kids and trying to talk some sense into them. He really needs to prepare his defense for Tom Robinson. But no, Scout gets into fist fights with redneck kids at school. Back at home, Atticus forbids Scout from fighting. Although I can’t say I blame Scout since some kids taunt her about her dad defending a black man. Then she tells Atticus that she doesn’t want to go back to school because her teacher –wait til you hear this! — scolds her for already knowing how to read. This anti-literacy policy goes a long way in explaining Alabama’s educational notoriety.
Onto THE TRIAL… Many of the white townsfolk assume that Tom Robinson is guilty because he’s black and his accuser, Mayella Ewell, is white. She lives with her father, Bob and a bunch of young’uns. They are dirt poor and her pa is a real mean ol’ cuss who keeps company with as much moonshine as he can get his hands on. He looks and acts like he lives in an outhouse. On occasion, he drunkenly staggers into town spewing the N word. He also likes to spit at people. He’s a real class act.
One night he’s out a’wandering, swilling his booze, when he comes upon Tom’s family’s little house in the woods. Atticus is there filling in Tom’s wife on the case while Tom sits in the town jail awaiting trial. Atticus had to drive over with his disobedient offspring because they wouldn’t stay put at home. While he’s in the house, the kids malinger in the car. Lo and behold, Bob Ewell emerges from the woods, stumbles to the car and proceeds to press his face against the windows, glaring and grimacing at Scout and Jem. I wished that the vampire kid was there to scare the bejesus out of the bastard.
Once he discerns that these are Atticus’ kids he hollers for Atticus. Atticus emerges, manly and composed. In spite of Bob Ewell’s bluster, we can tell that he’s intimidated by Atticus’ he-manliness. Our hero stares down the drunken a-hole, then gets into his car and reassures the kids. I was sort of hoping that Atticus would run down Bob Ewell, but he respects the rules of God and the law and would never do that.
As the trial nears, Atticus goes the extra mile to help his client, in spite of the fact that Tom’s impoverished family can probably only pay him in hickory nuts. One night he brings a book to the jail and stations himself out on its porch. He’s probably heard rumors of lynch mob fever in town. Now, he told Jem and Scout to stay home. Naturally the little hellions ignore their dad’s directive and hightail it over to the jail where they see a mob confronting Atticus. You’ll have to see for yourself if the situation is defused, but you won’t be surprised when Atticus orders the children to go home for their safety and they refuse. Mutinous brats, indeed!
As summer begins, so does the trial. The vampire kid returns to town and all three kids go to the trial because they do whatever they want. As court is called into session, Atticus is looking dashing and sagacious AF. Tom Robinson looks dignified, but couldn’t someone in his parish have loaned him a pair of pants so he wouldn’t have to wear overalls to court? Of course, half of the men in town are clad in overalls and they are Scout’s fave apparel, but none of them are on trial! Though, truth be told, being a black man on trial in 1930’s Alabama is probably more of a concern than the overalls.
The trial’s most riveting testimony hinges on the Chiffarobe Incident…
Tom Robinson’s accuser, Mayella Ewell takes the stand looking like a feral banshee. She testifies that, on the day in question, she saw Tom walking past her pappy’s shack and called him over to do some work. Mayella offered him a nickel to “bust an old chiffarobe.” Reading TKAM in school, I was unreasonably intrigued by the chiffarobe talk. What an intriguing word! I learned it was a piece of bedroom furniture with drawers on one side and room to hang clothes on the other side. Such a good concept. But how, I wondered, could the Ewells have afforded such a highfalutin thing when they are dirt poor? Also, why would Mayella want him to bust the chiffarobe? Surely it was still useful for holding flour sack dresses or a few bottles of moonshine? Sadly, these mysteries are never examined. When her story starts to fall apart and we suspect that someone else beat her, she gets desperate and starts a’hollerin’ about fancy folk who better believe her, lest they be stripped of their KKK membership.
Naturally Atticus provides a brilliant defense for his client, but will it be enough?
In the adult Scout’s voiceover she says something like, “Atticus was one of the few decent human beings in that backwater full of bigoted hayseeds. But at the time, we couldn’t make heads nor tails of what was going on in our town, let alone the trial.”
So there you have it, movie lovers, TKAM is a story about prejudice and justice. But it’s about a chiffarobe too. And how Tom Robinson and/or Boo Radley is a “mockingbird” who just sings and doesn’t bother anyone. But someone is bound to shoot the bird/person. And that’s a sin.
Mostly though, this American classic is the story of a heroic single parent who makes a living and does what’s right in spite of his little hellions’ constant disruptions and disobedience.
—At the 1963 Academy Awards Gregory Peck won Best Actor for his portrayal of Atticus Finch. Best Writing (Adapted) to Horton Foote. And a win for Best Art Direction.
—TKAM was published in 1960 by Harper Lee, a white woman from Alabama. In the intervening years, the socio-political landscape has changed, and the book and movie show their age. In particular, there have been criticisms of its “white savior” POV.