Saturday, 13 March 2010

To kill a mockingbird


Continuing with my theme of movies with child protagonists, I thought I would mention To Kill a Mockingbird. I watched this recently with my son and I don't think I had seen it since I was a child myself. I read Harper Lee's novel to him not too long ago so the story was fresh in our minds as we sat down to watch.

I remember the book and the movie being part of my education in the awareness of the struggle of black people in America. I don't know when I first saw it, but I'm guessing that I would have been ten or twelve. The movie came out in 1962 when I was four (though the setting is a lot earlier of course). A year later Martin Luther King would make his 'I have a dream' speech and JFK would be shot in Dallas.

There is a more straightforward children's story here. The recurring theme of the mysterious Boo Radley (nicely played by Robert Duvall) is wonderful and would probably be enough to make a successful children's book on its own. Boo - what a great name for a scary character!

But then there is far meatier tale of Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson, racism and injustice, ignorance and alleged rape. Scout (nicely played by Mary Badham) certainly has a lot of growing up to do during the course of the book and film. Philip Alford is equally good as Jem, and John Megna is perfect as the eccentric Dill (based on the young Truman Capote with whom Lee was childhood friends). Gregory Peck's slightly wooden acting style actually seems a good fix for the awkward Atticus. But it did make me want to watch In the Heat of the Night to see a black hero take on racial bigotry rather than a white one.

I think racism seems more of an alien concept to my son than it did to me when I grew up, and that has to be a good thing. Racism has not gone away - arguably a suspicion of difference is the default position in human beings - but there does seem to be a more general acknowledgment that it is a bad thing and something to be discouraged. But it is a difficult dragon to slay. It constantly changes its shape and form.

The book clearly had to be edited down to work as a movie and there is a lot of social and political references that are easy to lose. But looking at the movie again, I was struck by the fact that whereas the book tries (though arguably not hard enough) to let us into the lives of Scout's black neighbours - particularly Calpurnia - in the movie she and all the other black people are pushed into the background. The balance feels wrong. For a movie about race, it's awfully white.

What I had completely forgotten about - or perhaps did not appreciate when I first saw it - are the wonderful opening credits designed by Stephen Frankfurt. They are absolutely superb.

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