Disclaimer: while the film To Kill a Mockingbird is an exceptional adaptation of the classic novel of the same name, this review and analysis will only focus on the film. It will also ignore Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman.
To Kill a Mockingbird is, in my opinion, one of the greatest films of all time.
Mockingbird expertly combines images of working class America and childhood and juxtaposes them with intelligence and charisma of its most famous character, Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck. Atticus is the perfect vehicle for the audience; he never dumbs down of his answers to questions asked by his two children, Scout and Jem (played by Mary Badham and Phillip Alford, respectively). As a result, the audience gets an honest and thoughtful commentary of the town of Maycomb, which, as far as any of the characters are concerned, is the only place that matters.
At the beginning of the film, Scout and the audience learn that Atticus gives his service as a lawyer in exchange for whatever payment his clients can afford. While money is not available to the poor farmers of Maycomb, he receives payment in the form of food. Scout asks him if this means that his clients are poor. He replies that they are. She then asks if they are also poor. Atticus responds in an important way. He tells her that they are poor (as a result of the Great Depression), but they aren’t poor like other people in the town.
Atticus makes the clear distinction that while they are surrounded by the working class, they are not one of them. The only similarity he has with his neighbors is proximity. However, Atticus knows how to interact with the people of Maycomb. Although they may be separated by class and lifestyle, he knows what they want to hear. He repeats this lesson to Scout when she is upset that she isn’t allowed to read at school because she is too young. He tells her that she must learn the art of compromise, but what he really teaches her is that she must blend in. No one else in Scout’s class at school reads, and she separates herself as an intellectual by reading. The differences between her, a lawyer’s daughter, and her classmates, the children of farmers and laborers, are highlighted in this moment.
However, Atticus can take a more subtle approach with Jem when teaching him how the world works. Jem is older and less hot-headed than Scout, and can therefore more easily understand the nuances of Maycomb’s social structure. Scout is still learning the basics, and she is able to utilize them throughout the film, but Jem is more prepared to follow in his father’s footsteps. Jem, for example, by watching the trial, begins to understand the racial tension in Maycomb, something Scout is not quite able to comprehend even after watching the trial. When Atticus explains to his family that Tom was killed trying to escape, there is a clear implication of foul play that is lost on Scout, but that Jem easily picks up.
The brilliance of this is that it mirrors the viewer’s own experience. The levels to which Atticus guides his children through Maycomb allows viewers to understand the events that have occurred while also leaving some space for them to think critically and come to a thought-out conclusion. Additionally, the film allows the viewer to learn lessons through other characters, something that mirrors privileged childhoods like the ones Scout, Jem, and some of the viewers have experienced.
Scout and Jem need to have privilege for this story to work on the levels it does. The white inhabitants of Maycomb don’t see themselves as bad people, but they use their privilege to their advantage. Bob Ewell is able to convince a jury of his peers (the distinction between his peers and Tom Robinson’s peers is of importance) that Tom beat and raped his daughter Mayella not because of any forensic evidence, but because Tom Robinson is black and the Ewell family is white. Again, the levels of the film are apparent here. Bob Ewell is clearly meant to be a villainous character, but there is more to his lies than that. He may not financially have many more financial resources than Tom Robinson, but the color of his skin gets the town rallying behind him. This type of privilege is still subject to national debate today. Scout, Jem, and Dill are able to recognize that they have this privilege (mainly thanks to Atticus). Even in the film, the viewer can see this visually: while the white citizens of the town are all sitting together, Jem, Scout, and Dill, sit with the black members, showing solidarity as well as their stances on the issue.
Scout and Jem spend most of their time simply running around Maycomb spying on people. They do not have to face racial prejudice like the people of color in the film nor the abject poverty of their neighbors. They simply get to be children living relatively comfortable lives. They only experience these things by viewing other people. Until the very end of the film, they are able to separate from these events at any moment. They lurk around Boo Radley’s house and watch the court proceedings because they want to. Atticus does not force them to engage with Maycomb. Scout and Jem are relatable to the viewers because they are in the same situation. The film then is able to exert control over how the viewer feels about the inhabitants of Maycomb: the viewer likes Atticus because Jem and Scout like Atticus and the viewer is scared of and subsequently feels that Boo Radley is redeemed because this is how the children feel.
There are few films that are nearly perfect from every aspect, and To Kill a Mockingbird is one of them. Despite what is clearly tight control over every facet of the film, the end result seems as effortless and random as childhood. This, combined with the focus on the intersection of class and race in a working-class Southern town is what makes To Kill a Mockingbird not only one of the best, but one of the most important films of all time.