|Roger Ebert Misses Out On Harper Lee|
|'Mockingbird' is far more plausible than he knew|
Someday, I like to think, Roger Ebert will re-read his essay on “To Kill a Mockingbird” and stare disbelieving at it, incredulous that he so obviously misread the book, the movie, the South, the times. Ebert is an important and very good movie critic (not always the same thing…..) and has never taken himself seriously (for the most part….) but gets physically annoyed and emotional about movies. No lack of recommendation to me. So this makes his essay so hard to take, so difficult to ignore, so undeniably wrong.
The movie, starring Gregory Peck, was based upon the book, by Harper Lee, and is among the finest ever made, according to many. Most praise at the time was about the quality and natural performances of the child actors – who were excellent without question – and the rather startling observation that Peck could not have conceived of a more perfect fit for himself than this role. It accentuated all his good points and none of his bad. Response to the movie for adults at the time corresponded to what they thought of Peck. To those younger, it was an emotional tear as much as “X” was years later. If they’d read the book already – I had in high school – it was a faithful rendering.
Here is Ebert on the movie, and I respond after each paragraph to count coup. This is taken from Ebert’s site without permission but I’ll risk it, but it is important to read what he said to understand my annoyance and disappointment.
"To Kill a
Mockingbird" is a time capsule, preserving hopes and sentiments from a kinder,
gentler, more naive
True as far
as it goes, but whatever heroic qualities Atticus has pale in book and movie
besides that of the Brock Peters character, who knows from the git go he’ll
most likely be lynched after he’s charged.
His bravery in relating the facts before a white jury is the center of
The movie has remained the favorite of many people. It is currently listed as the 29th best film of all time in a poll by the Internet Movie Database. Such polls are of questionable significance, but certainly the movie and the Harper Lee novel on which it is based have legions of admirers. It is being read by many Chicagoans as part of a city-wide initiative in book discussion. It is a beautifully-written book, but it should be used not as a record of how things are, or were, but of how we once liked to think of them.
starts his course change into error. Of
course the book is oversimplified, but like all things in the South, things –
including history and journalism – were compiled by code according to readily
understood templates. Ebert is
blissfully unaware (possible) or unappreciative (more likely) of the depth of
The novel, which focuses on the coming of age of three young children, especially the tomboy Scout, gains strength from her point of view: It sees the good and evil of the world through the eyes of a 6-year-old child. The movie shifts the emphasis to the character of her father, Atticus Finch, but from this new point of view doesn't see as much as an adult in that time and place should see.
Hard to say
what Ebert means, but to imply that Finch is unobservant is ludicrous. He wages his war in the weaponry of the time:
the Southern Code. A battle fought
outside it is a lost battle. Inside, you
have a chance.
Maycomb is evoked by director Robert Mulligan as a "tired old town" of dirt roads, picket fences, climbing vines, front porches held up by pillars of brick, rocking chairs, and
Their imagination is much occupied by the Radley house, right down the street, which seems always dark, shaded and closed. Jem tells Dill that Mr. Radley keeps his son Boo chained to a bed in the house, and describes Boo breathlessly: "Judging from his tracks, he's about six and a half feet tall. He eats raw squirrels and all the cats he can catch. There's a long, jagged scar that runs all the way across his face. His teeth are yellow and rotten. His eyes are popped. And he drools most of the time." Of course the first detail reveals Jem has never seen Boo.
Into this peaceful calm drops a thunderbolt. Atticus is asked by the town judge to defend a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who has been accused of raping a poor white girl named Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox). White opinion is of course much against the black man, who is presumed guilty, and Mayelle's father Bob (James Anderson) pays an ominous call on Atticus, indirectly threatening his children. The children are also taunted at school, and get in fights; Atticus explains to them why he is defending a Negro, and warns them against using the word "nigger."
Maybe. The South despised poor white trash as much or more as blacks. They could have easily believed Finch’s case but just not cared. The template of racial separation was broken, and the black man had to be punished as much for acting as a friend to a white woman (he’d come into her house at her request to make a repair) whether he’d raped her or not, whether she tried to seduce him or not, whether it was her father who’d raped her or not. This is immediately harped upon by the DA who elicits that Robinson ‘felt sorry’ for a white woman. That’s his crime. They didn’t care if she’s sleeping with goats or blacks. That it came to light that she – and therefore possibly others – wanted to…..well!!! The message is to black men AND white women.
Her father clearly beat her, though. That’s why Ewell doesn’t whoop; he knows he’s been convicted by the town, and that he’ll pay for that crime as surely as Robinson will for his. That’s why he plans to kill Finch’s kids.
The courtroom scenes are the most celebrated in the movie; they make it perfectly clear that Tom Robinson is innocent, that no rape occurred, that Maybelle came on to Robinson, that he tried to flee, that Bob Ewell beat his own daughter, and she lied about it out of shame for feeling attracted to a black man. Atticus' summation to the jury is one of Gregory Peck's great scenes, but of course the all-white jury finds Tom Robinson guilty anyway. The verdict is greeted by an uncanny quiet: No whoops of triumph from Bob Ewell, no cries of pro
The problem here, for me, is that the conviction of Tom Robinson is not the point of the scene, which looks right past him to focus on the nobility of Atticus Finch. I also wonder at the general lack of emotion in the courtroom, and the movie only grows more puzzling by what happens next. Atticus is told by the sheriff that while Tom Robinson was being taken for safekeeping to nearby Abbottsville, he broke loose and tried to run away. As Atticus repeats the story: "The deputy called out to him to stop. Tom didn't stop. He shot at him to wound him and missed his aim. Killed him. The deputy says Tom just ran like a crazy man."
Here it is. The sheriff speaks the Southern Code. Robinson, who was lame and surely in chains, did not try to run away. Robinson was taken from the car and killed by the deputy. In the miasma of Southern ethics, that may have been a favor because he could have been burned alive or lynched or both. In the 30’s, a black man convicted of raping a white woman was not going to live long. The blacks knew this, and why they stayed quiet at the end was their way of saying goodbye to a good man. The reason they stood for Finch is that they knew he and his family were now at risk for actually fighting against a foregone conclusion. Of course, in a tale told by his daughter, the focus is on Finch; but the hero is Robinson. In the book and Brock Peter’s performance, there is no doubt who Goodness personified is.
That Scout could
believe it happened just like this is credible. That Atticus Finch, an adult
liberal resident of the
error. Finch knew it was bullshit, and
just played out the role. It would be incredible for Finch to have
thought that, and he did not. Why
incite others to violence and death?
What could he do?
The construction of the following scene is highly implausible. Atticus drives out to Tom Robinson's house to break the sad news to his widow, Helen. She is played by Kim Hamilton (who is not credited, and indeed has no speaking lines in a film that finds time for dialog by two superfluous white neighbors of the Finches). On the porch are several male friends and relatives. Bob Ewell, the vile father who beat his girl into lying, lurches out of the shadows and says to one of them, "Boy, go in the house and bring out Atticus Finch." One of the men does so, Ewell spits in Atticus's face, Atticus stares him down and drives away. The black people in this scene are not treated as characters, but as props, and kept entirely in long shot. The closeups are reserved for the white hero and villain.
Finch relates the tale to Robinson’s wife, knowing that she understands the code as surely as Calpurnia does, and if she was hoping against hope that somehow this would turn out okay, she is not surprised, however grief stricken, at the news. The silence of the blacks throughout is a perfectly accurate portrayal of how they’d been trained and expected by their elders to take this sort of information for a couple of centuries. Questionable, but not unbelievable.
It may be that in 1932 the situation was such in Alabama that this white man, who the people on that porch had seen lie to convict Tom Robinson, could walk up to them alone after they had just learned he had been killed, call one of them "boy," and not be touched. If black fear of whites was that deep in those days, then the rest of the movie exists in a dream world.
probably exactly how it was. What
indicates otherwise? The Klan ran the
South back then.
The upbeat payoff involves Ewell's cowardly attack on Scout and Jem, and the sudden appearance of the mysterious Boo Radley (Robert Duvall, in his first screen performance), to save them. Ewell is found dead with a knife under his ribs. Boo materializes inside the Finch house, is identified by Scout as her savior, and they're soon sitting side by side on the front porch swing. The sheriff decides that no good would be served by accusing Boo of the death of Ewell. That would be like "killing a mockingbird," and we know from earlier in the film that you can shoot all the bluejays you want, but not mockingbirds--because all they do is sing to bring music to the garden. Not exactly a description of the silent Boo Radley, but we get the point.
misses several points. Radley is
mysterious and unknown only to the children.
He is of the age to have been a WWI veteran and shell shocked, or maybe
just handicapped in some way, but the adults, while startled to see him, are
not in any way displeased, afraid, or anxious about being in his presence, and
Finch knows him as Arthur when he thanks him for his children and introduces
his daughter. Radley knifes Ewell and
carries Jem back to the house, so he hasn’t materialized there in either book
or movie. The Sheriff does reach the
conclusion about exposing this damaged hero to risk, but so does Atticus, who is perfectly prepared to say his young son
killed Ewell with his own knife. Finch
is constructing an acceptable lie template that needs only be plausible just as
the Sheriff constructs another, simpler, and more viable one, and they talk
past each other for a bit. They are both
working within the Southern code, but the Sheriff finally has to snap Atticus
out of it and insist on his superior version.
This is a tricky note to end on, because it brings Boo Radley in literally from the wings as a distraction from the facts: An innocent black man was framed for a crime that never took place, he was convicted by a white jury in the face of overwhelming evidence, and he was shot dead in problematic circumstances. Now we are expected to feel good because the events got Boo out of the house. That Boo Radley killed Bob Ewell may be justice, but it is not parity. The sheriff says, "There's a black man dead for no reason, and now the man responsible for it is dead. Let the dead bury the dead this time." But I doubt that either Tom Robinson or Bob Ewell would want to be buried by the other.
Probably wrong: the crime did take place. But Ewell and not Robinson was the felon, and probably raped his own daughter and beat her. You are not expected to feel that things are okay because Ewell is dead. You are being shown Scout and Jem’s arrival into a first brush with the sick Southern Code that will run their lives, fight it or not. It’s possible that Lee never consciously thought of it like that; having lived the Code herself, it might have merely been her unconscious template to assume that everyone ‘understood.’
is the omni presence of the book. His
memory and myth hovers over everything the children do over the several
summers. If anything, he might be symbolic
of actual decency the South locked away centuries earlier, who is capable only
of seldom explosions of energetic good.
"To Kill a Mockingbird" is, as I said, a time capsule. It expresses the liberal pieties of a more innocent time, the early 1960s, and it goes very easy on the realities of small-town
Who knows, but Finch is upper class, and would the mob have been willing to kill him, with all that would have entailed, before his children? It’s possible, but they must have understood there would be blowback. And in the movie, as in the book, it works. It’s easy to be brave unopposed, in a mob. And maybe, they didn’t really want to hang the guy, but peer pressure and all that. It happens like that sometimes - Twain recalled a similar scene in Huckleberry Finn - in history.
Ebert is ignorant of the Olde South, pre 1960’s. It was scary being a white northerner and seeing racial interactions back then; God knows how it was being black. The gossamer of southern literature utilized the benefits of the code from the days of the Slave Patrols. Lee’s book was the first popular one that accurately demonstrated its power, and how difficult it was to the very end to break it apart. In accordance with Southern ancestor worship, the daughter recalls the great father, but Robinson’s near Galahad perfection – lain down in matter of fact exposition – is the remarkable thing here, recalled by a white woman in her middle age before Martin Luther King was a household word.