The recent publication of Go Set A Watchman, the original draft of what would become Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird, has caused quite a stir, not least of all due to its portrayal of beloved character Atticus Finch as a bitter old racist.
Whilst this was an idea later discarded by Lee, the unpleasantness of seeing one of the true “white knights” of modern literature cast in such an unflattering light is not easily shaken.
With this in mind, it seems like the best antidote would be to revisit Atticus’s closing argument from the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird, in order to remind us of what we loved about this story (and Atticus himself) in the first place.
For those of you unfamiliar with the book or movie, the narrative revolves around the efforts of widowed lawyer Atticus (Gregory Peck) to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman in 1930s Alabama, as seen through the eyes of his daughter, Scout (Mary Badham).
Despite Atticus mounting an exemplary defence (particularly in comparison to the shoddy case put forward by the prosecution), things are not looking good for Tom as the trial approaches its conclusion. It’s at this point that Atticus makes his impassioned final statement, and our Anatomy Lesson begins…
The first thing you’ll notice about the scene is how unfussy the camera work is. Director Robert Mulligan and cinematographer Russell Harlan limit the camera moves to simple lateral panning and we view things from a fixed distance at all times, with the camera positioned where the jury box would be.
By shooting in this way, not only do Mulligan and Harlan allow us to see Atticus clearly, they’ve made it so we’re viewing him from the point of view of the jury. In effect, Mulligan and Harlan have transformed the film’s audience into jury members!
It’s not quite breaking the fourth wall, but it is incredibly immersive, and just like the fictional jury, we’re instantly transfixed by Atticus. From this intimate vantage point, we’re front row witnesses to his passion and his cool logic, and thanks to the panning that keeps Atticus in frame, the camera works as our own eyes would, following him as he paces about the courtroom.
When we do finally cut away from Atticus for this first time, it’s to emphasise his comments on the equality inherent in the legal system for all people by showing the black attendees seated on the upper floor.
This might seem a bit on the nose, until you realise there’s also a degree of irony at play, as the black members of the community aren’t down with the white folk, they’re up in the rafters. Even in the one place where egalitarianism is supposed to reign supreme, anyone without white skin is still getting a raw deal.
As if to further hammer home this point, the second time we cut away from Atticus’s final remarks (after we’re shown his son Jem watching a moment that will define forever his father in his eyes), we transition to a wide shot of the courtroom that shows us the members of the jury.
And who are these fine upstanding citizens charged with deciding Tom Robinson’s fate? Why, 12 middle-aged white men, of course. It’s at this point you start to think that Tom would have better odds beating the house in Vegas than of being acquitted of the charges against him.
All this technical stuff adds plenty to the scene, but really it (like the movie itself) is secondary to Peck’s performance. The man truly becomes Atticus Finch, from the inflection and tone of his voice, to his posture and air of nobility.
Horton Foote’s screenplay (and its source material) gives Peck a lot to work with, and he clearly relishes being the mouthpiece for words like these:
“The witnesses for the State, with the exception of the sheriff of Maycomb County have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption… the evil assumption that all Negroes lie, all Negroes are basically immoral beings, all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women. An assumption that one associates with minds of their caliber, and which is, in itself, gentlemen, a lie, which I do not need to point out to you.”
It’s a clever line of argument that Peck pitches just right. “Come on, now”, he’s saying, “Surely, we all agree this racism stuff is utter crap dreamed up by ignorant morons, not enlightened and clever men like you”.
It shames the jury for their own prejudices, even as it appeals to their desire to consider themselves good people, and it’s nothing short of brilliant.
Later, Peck gets the chance to dispense with the calm exterior and go for broke, and in case any further proof were needed of just how masterful his Oscar-winning turn truly is, just listen to the conviction in his voice when he delivers these lines:
“Now, gentlemen, in this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system – that’s no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality!”
I get shivers down my spine every time.
Wisely, there’s no music during the scene. A score can often elevate an intense monologue, but here it would only detract from the experience by undermining the feeling of being in a courtroom, so a shout out to composer Elmer Bernstein for saving the music until after Atticus wraps up his speech.
Ultimately, this scene works so well because it uses all the above artistic and technical craft to sum up the core message of To Kill A Mockingbird overall: the need for those in position of power (regardless of their gender or the colour of their skin) to stand up for the inalienable human rights of anyone in society who is being oppressed.
It may have been a message intended for a 1960s audience, but given the state of the world we live in at the moment, it’s just as relevant to us today as it was way back then.