AFInity: To Kill a Mockingbird
By Kim Hollis
December 8, 2009

It's about time for overall chic to have its day in the 2000s.

We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.

Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.

In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.

#25: To Kill a Mockingbird

Every once in awhile, there are movies, books, songs or shows that we really connect with. Perhaps it's because they have some association to real events in our own lives, or maybe it's that we have an affinity for the actors involved. Or maybe there's just an unexplainable something that sets off a spark in our minds and hearts. For me, To Kill a Mockingbird is just such a film, and for the latter reason.

I'd never seen the movie adaptation of Harper Lee's novel before today. My father had given me the book when I was a teenager, and I've read it at least three times since then. Needless to say, there was something about the story that spoke to me. The movie, which was released in 1962, was something I'd always meant to get around to. But, of course, there are hundreds of movies, books, video games and television series that I've intended to watch, and the list grows larger all the time. It's only through the magic of the AFI project that I'm forcing myself to take a couple of hours each week to watch a time-honored classic. And what a rewarding experience it's turning out to be.

To Kill a Mockingbird is focused upon the Finch family – Atticus and his children Jem and Jean Louise, also known as "Scout". They live in Maycomb, Alabama during the 1930s, and the Depression is having its impact on their family as well as other members of their community. Atticus is an attorney, while Jem and Scout are elementary school-aged kids who are devoted to their dad.

In such a small community, it seems like all of the citizens know each other, and when Jem and Scout befriend a boy named Dill who is visiting his aunt during the summer, they tell him the story of a dangerous neighbor named Boo Radley, a gentleman who is apparently kept chained to his bed by his father, if you believe the stories. Of course, Dill's aunt does say that Boo once stabbed his father in the leg with some scissors, so he does loom large as a frightening figure.

As the children do the sorts of things that kids in the 1930s might be expected to, Atticus is assigned to defend a black man named Tom Robinson from charges that he raped and beat a white woman. The case is fraught with racial tension, but Atticus takes his duties very seriously and in fact seems to believe Tom's story versus that of the Ewell family. The racial overtones are quite serious, though, with Bob Ewell, the head of that clan, quietly threatening Atticus, his family and Tom himself. At one point, he comments to Atticus that he should have killed Robinson to save his family the turmoil and the taxpayers some money.

It would be easy for us to be smugly retrospective from our 21st century perch, watching people behaving in such an appalling manner and threatening a man simply for providing a constitutionally guaranteed defense to a man because it is his legal duty. Unfortunately, I was reminded of recent events in my current hometown, where African-American men were charged with a particularly vicious murder of two young white people. While I certainly believed that the preponderance of the evidence was against the defendants, I found myself saddened by comments from all sorts of people that they did not deserve any kind of defense. Even worse, the lawyers assigned to defend the accused were themselves threatened for doing their jobs, with messages on voicemail and comments left on the local newspaper Web site. I'd love to proudly be able to say, "Look how far we've come." The truth of the matter is I cannot. The reality created surrounding the trial portion of the story in To Kill a Mockingbird rings all too true.

And yet, there is another reality presented in To Kill a Mockingbird that is uplifting and special. That reality surrounds Atticus and his family, their closeness and his principled teaching of values. Within the first 15 minutes of the movie, so much of the Finch family dynamic is revealed. We can see that Jem keeps a watchful eye over his sister, including her in his games and activities and carefully making sure that she follows the right path. Atticus similarly instills a sense of morality in his children, and even when they might misbehave, there's a code that they are following in the process. Through it all, their love shines with a light that is unmistakable. Given that these are people portrayed by actors, this quality of this family feeling is impressive indeed.

It doesn't hurt matters any that To Kill a Mockingbird is exquisitely acted, top to bottom. At the center of it all, of course, is Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. We fully believe that he is a man who constantly stands behind his convictions and accepts no excuses for those who might fall short of his lofty expectations. He's tender with the children, a voice for right in the courthouse, and even is believable as someone who happens to be the best shot in all of the county (he claims he's not good with a gun any more, but his abilities soon prove otherwise).

Oftentimes, hiring the right child actors can be perilous, but there's no question that Mary Badham as Scout, John Megna as Dill and particularly Phillip Alford as Jem were the perfect choices for their roles and were coached to play their characters by someone who understood their motivations. Badham and Alford were both from Alabama, so their accents rang true, and it's easy to see Megna as a young Truman Capote in training, small for his age but with a rapier wit and easy-to-gain friendship.

Also of note is the fact that To Kill a Mockingbird marks the film debut of one Robert Duvall. He's only onscreen for a few moments (but in a pivotal role), and it is in fact an auspicious beginning to a distinguished and long-lasting career.

Overall, the movie has a minimalist aspect to it that really works well with the simple story. Our attention is not drawn by fancy set pieces or elaborate costumes, but instead pulled in by a seamless story and near-perfect performances. Now that I've seen the movie once, my inclination is to think that just like the book, it's something I'll enjoy again and again, taking something new from it each time I watch. It's remarkable that a film with such a moral standpoint and a fair amount of tragedy can be so warm and fuzzy, but it manages to be, somehow. We all wish to know men like Atticus Finch at some point in our lives. To Kill a Mockingbird gives us hope that they're out there in the world, doing the right thing.

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