Monday, June 26, 2017

Brief Analysis of the Ethics of "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Film Analysis of To Kill a Mockingbird

     The choice for this film analysis was ultimately between two movies that made a strong impact on me over the past year, or so: The Lady in the Van starring Maggie Smith and To Kill a Mockingbird starring the iconic Gregory Peck.  Both motion pictures are excellent, one following a real-life story of London’s Miss Shepherd and the other based on the classic work by Harper Lee, but a decision had to be made.  The ultimate choice of topic for this paper, then, is To Kill a Mockingbird.  In part, this is based on the fact that I wrote a research paper last term entitled “Atticus Finch’s Identity Crisis,” which compared and contrasted Harper Lee’s two books—only one in a sense, but that’s a digression to be clarified within this academic paper.  In choosing this movie, I have selected a work full of rich ethical complexities that are successfully navigated by the protagonist, Atticus Finch.  (While the narrator is arguably Scout Finch, Atticus Finch is best described as the protagonist of the novel and film.)  In personal communications with Gregory Peck’s daughter, Cecilia Peck, she recently described to me why this role was so deeply important to her father.  
I think what he said himself sums it up so well, "I put everything I had into it — all my feelings, and everything I'd learned in 46 years of living, about family life and fathers and children. And my feelings about racial justice and inequality and opportunity.” He did put all of himself into it. And he championed the making of the film at a time when most of the studios were not ready to address the subject of racism in films. Although it may not seem groundbreaking today, at the time, the book and the film were enormously impactful. I believe they helped to shift attitudes in our country and point towards the Civil Rights legislation. My dad’s willingness to stand up for what he believed in showed in his performance as Atticus. Harper Lee and my father became inseparable for the rest of their lives. Their friendship came out of the relationship between the book and the film, which also became inseparable. As much as the book drove readers toward the film, the film drove viewers toward the novel. They are forever intertwined, and I think it’s one of the best adaptations ever from a novel into a film.  (Peck, Personal Communication)

        The movie is set in the fictional community of Maycomb, Alabama in the early 1930s.  This Southern community is one in which the race divide is like a chasm that runs deep and wide through a small American town.  When Atticus Finch becomes the public defender for Tom Robinson, a young black man unjustly accused of raping a white woman, Atticus’ involvement places his reputation and even the physical safety of his family in jeopardy.

     For the purposes of this analysis, this essay will be focusing upon the iconic courtroom scene from the motion picture.  The only notable difference between the film and the book’s narrative pertains to the representation of Tom Robinson’s withered left hand; it is not depicted as particularly deformed in the movie.   Since there are no significant differences between the book and the movie with regards to this particular passage, then, I am going to set the scene with an excerpt from Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.  In this scene, Atticus is referring to the alleged rape victim, Mayella Ewell.

I say guilt, gentleman, because it was guilt that motivated her.  She has committed no crime, she has merely broken a rigid and time-honored code of our society, a code so severe that whoever breaks it is hounded from our midst as unfit to live with.  She is the victim of cruel poverty and ignorance, but I cannot pity her: she is white.  She knew full well the enormity of her offense, but because her desires were greater than the code she was breaking, she persisted in breaking it.  Sher persisted, as her subsequent reaction is something every one of us have known at one time or another.  She did something every child has done—she tried to put the evidence of her offense away from her.    But in this case she was no child hiding contraband: she struck out at her victim—of necessity she must put him away from her presence, from this world.  She must destroy the evidence of her offense.  (Lee, 231)
The passage dramatizes Atticus’ willingness to rise to the passionate defense of Tom Robinson, but it further highlights his selflessness with regards to the very public nature of this defense.  He could have proceeded half-heartedly, for instance, which would have likely have safeguarded his reputation within the community.  Instead, he gave the defense his utmost, and in so doing he jeopardized his reputation with the townspeople of Maycomb, Alabama. 

     The first lens through which this scene will be examined will be the lens of integrity.  As Stephen Carter defines the application of this word, it requires one to “discern what is right, act on that discernment, and then publicly explain why you acted as you did.”  (Tompkins, 84)  No other ethical quality or dimension seems to describe so well what is at the heart of Atticus strident defense of Tom Robinson.  It is not defense rooted in anything remotely self-serving, but it represents a man taking risk upon himself (and family) for the good of an innocent man.  By intervening and accepting this client, his work as an attorney becomes akin to the person who sees something happening that is morally wrong and either interposes himself between victim or perpetrator or takes another manner of direct action to attempt to secure the greater good; it’s “taking a stand against the bystander mentality.”  It is so easy to let events pass one by without extending even a gesture of aid, but Atticus placed his entire livelihood within Maycomb in uncertainty when he undertook the defense of Mr. Robinson.  Applying the lens of integrity to the courtroom scene from To Kill a Mockingbird shines a bright light upon the unique character of Atticus Finch, a man who bravely articulates the truth regarding racism in the South, and its continuing role within crime and punishment, as well as the pursuit of truth.

     The second lens to turn to is the one called justice, specifically procedural justice.  “Procedural justice provides an alternative to the personal search for corrective justice by creating a more impartial process for discerning what is fair or deserving.  A process for procedural justice could be as simple as drawing a name from a hat or as complex as legal trial by jury of one’s peers.”  (Tompkins, 75-76)  It is Atticus Finch’s steadfast belief in the criminal justice system and the rule of law that is at the heart of his challenge to the community’s status quo.  He does not hold that only Caucasians are worthy of a fair and just trial; he believes it is something to which all are entitled.  It could be argued that procedural justice in the story’s end loses ground, however, in the heart of Atticus.  Integrity and procedural justice are in conflict when Tom Robinson is found guilty, despite the strong evidence to the contrary.  As if something was learned from this later in the work, Atticus Finch also relents in not publicizing the serious actions of the reclusive Boo Radley through the spotlight of a new trial.  While not directly in the scope of the scene being analyzed, it is important to raise this dimension of the moral and ethical development of Atticus Finch, as this ensconcing of the truth would have been against every moral fiber of his being before the attack upon his daughter Scout Finch.  The attack on his own family has revealed that integrity is the higher good than necessarily always following the rules of man’s law.

     As Cecilia Peck wisely observed earlier, “Although it may not seem groundbreaking today, at the time, the book and the film were enormously impactful. I believe they helped to shift attitudes in our country and point towards the Civil Rights legislation. My dad’s willingness to stand up for what he believed in showed in his performance as Atticus.”  (Peck, Personal Communication)  Both the book and motion picture are infused with a deep integrity and an appreciation of the rights of all.  Indeed, Aticus represents a character that is still emulated (by some) in the legal profession.  The work is poignant reminder of the good that people may do when the good of self is placed behind the good of others.

Cited Sources

Lee, Harper.  To Kill a Mockingbird, HarperCollins, New York, 1960.

Peck, Cecilia, Personal Communication

Tompkins, Paula S. Practicing Communication Ethics : Development, Discernment, and Decision-Making. Boston, MA : Allyn & Bacon, 2011. Print. 


 Works Consulted

"A Conversation with Gregory Peck," directed by Barbara Kopple. produced by Barbara Kopple, Cecilia Peck, and Linda Saffire.  performance by Gregory Peck.  Universal Studios, , 2011. 

Directed by Mulligan, Robert. To Kill a Mockingbird, produced by Horton Foote, performance by Gregory Peck, Mary Badham and Phillip Alford. Universal-International, 1962. 

(MLA style not retained in this essay due to spacing for blog readers.)