Film Nerd 2.0: A screening of 'To Kill A Mockingbird' uplifts, enlightens, and even terrifies
"So, are they going to kill a mockingbird?"
"Dad, what did the bird do?"
This was the first response from Toshi and Allen, verbatim, when I was picking titles with them for this year's Film Nerd 2.0 line-up, and I stopped to look at the discs for "To Kill A Mockingbird," the 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee's classic novel.
Toshi takes titles literally. The idea of metaphor is beyond him. It is not something he fully gets yet, the double-meanings of things. And so when we're talking about movies, he asks for title, plot, and an explanation if necessary. I like that he thinks that way, that he knows what it takes for him to understand something, and he knows how to interrogate me to get it.
It reminds me of the bit on "The Simpsons" where it shows Bart Simpson walking out of a theater showing "Naked Lunch" and he says, "I can think of at least two things wrong with that title." I remember as a kid when I would try to see movies that were forbidden to me, and I would sometimes succeed in my quest only to be confused and irritated by the result. Nine year old kids really aren't the target audience for "An Unmarried Woman," but I was sure I wanted to see it because it was rated R. I wish I'd had Paul Mazursky there to ask questions afterwards, because I had plenty of them.
When MLK Day was recently celebrated by Toshi's school, we talked about who that was and what he did and why that was important, and it raised a lot of questions about race from Toshi. Allen really isn't thinking about this stuff yet, but Toshi's class is a pretty diverse group of kids, and they've spent the last four years together, so they are very close. Race isn't a thing to them. It's just not. I've spent enough time as a class parent and on field trips and at parties with the whole group to know that it just doesn't occur to them to talk about it. They're just all kids. It's pretty sensational to spend time with them and see it. I spent a lot of time growing up in the South, and I certainly spent time with family and friends of family who were, shall we say, old school in terms of thinking.
They are gone now, for the most part. Many of them were very old when I was just a kid, and the things I overheard were reflexive to them, ingrained behaviors that they didn't even realize might upset someone. Race was a conversation for much of my formative years, an active ongoing issue in many places. I was assaulted with a friend one night outside a high school we were playing in football, and it was made crystal clear to us that we were being "punked out" because we were white in the wrong place. And I saw the reverse. I saw many kids hassled and harassed over the years, obviously excluded over race. It got better the older I got, and I feel like I lived through a transition period, when things were evolving. My children are six and three and the first President of the United States of America that they will remember is a black man named Barack Obama. Love him or hate him, that sets their expectations for the world in a very specific way. Their reality is not the reality I grew up in, and thank God for it.
Before Saturday night, my children had never heard the word nigger.
It didn't exist for them. It wasn't something we'd had to discuss, because it had not been said to them or in front of them or in anything they had watched. And I knew, of course, that was an issue with this film. Then again, in a bilingual household, I am constantly thinking about language and how it defines the world for my kids. It's one of those things that is an ongoing conversation between my wife and I. I certainly express myself with color, and while I am largely successful at not swearing in front of my kids, I carry enough resonant volume that they've heard conversations that were not meant for them. They have long since had my wife read them both the riot act about what words they are or are not allowed to use. And my wife can scare the hot holy hell out of my kids in a way I can't even begin to approach. She is the enforcer in my house, no doubt about it. I'm Switzerland. I am where the kids run for refuge. They beg me to be their Kyle Reese, but it is no good. My wife will find them, and she will lay down the law. She doesn't tolerate the use of "stupid" as a pejorative, so you can imagine how she would feel about racial slurs.
"To Kill A Mockingbird" tells what I still consider an incredibly nuanced and delicate story about morality and perception, and does so with an adult sensibility, although told from the point of view of a child. It is a heartbroken Southern fairy tale where the Big Bad Wolf wins at the end, only to get eaten by the witch in the candy house, who turns out to not be a witch at all, but just a sad old lady with a taste for wolf.
The point of view of the film is what really pushes it from good to great in my opinion. If you told the same story and it was just about Atticus Finch the lawyer, it would be a very good story and would make some of the same points about race and justice. But because Atticus is a father, and because he is trying to raise two moral people in the '30s in Mississippi, what he does matters in a different way. He is a hero, and the closest he comes to raising hands to someone in the whole film comes when Bob Ewell spits on him, and all he does then is take out his handkerchief and wipe his face. When he tells his daughter Scout that she is not to fight, ever, no matter what, he means it, and he is tested a few times.
In those scenes, it is the presence of the children that changes everything. He has to do the right thing because he knows they are watching, and no matter what, he will be a good role model for them. He will not fail them. I watch Gregory Peck in this film, and I am blown away by the perfect iconography of fatherhood that he represents here. I love the opening, where Jem (Phillip Alford) complains because his father is too old to play football for the Methodists. It's a gentle reminder that Atticus is still adjusting to his role as the primary care giver and that he's redefining his relationship with his kids. His wife's death is still fresh, not even three full years earlier, and now it's him by himself, his only full-time ally his housekeeper Calpurnia (Estelle Evans). It's significant that Calpurnia's black, but only in the sense that Atticus treats her with such common normal decency that their relationship just seems like a given. He doesn't treat her like "the help" at all, but rather as a key member of his household, a collaborator in keeping Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem honest and moral. How you treat the people you trust to raise your kids, and how you choose those people, says a lot about you. Atticus doesn't need to tell anyone what his feelings on race are because his daily life says it for him.
It's also because of the point of view of the story that I felt like it was a good way to introduce these ideas into conversation with my kids. Toshi made the connection very early on that Jem and Scout are three years apart, the same as Toshi and Allen, and that connection really pulled the two boys into the film in a very immediate way. The movie is about a sort of loss of innocence, and it's also very much about the idea of perception. There are two storylines that unfold, interwoven with one another, and for much of the film, they don't seem like they're directly connected. First, there's the story of Boo Radley, an unseen presence who lives next to Atticus. Jem and Scout are obsessed with Boo because of the stories they've heard about him and because of the condition of his house. It looks like a haunted house, and they've heard that Boo stabbed his father out of boredom and that he's had to be chained up in City Hall and permanently locked away in his own house. When young Dill Harris (John Megna) comes to stay on their street with his aunt, one of the first things Scout and Jem do is tell him the story of Boo Radley. Dill's curiosity becomes the spark they need to finally investigate more closely. I didn't really consider ahead of time how overtly scary the Radley storyline is, but watching the movie this time, it's blatantly played like a horror film. Both Toshi and Allen were alarmed by every reference to the Radley house and every scene that focused on that storyline. There's an amazing moment where Dill and Scout and Jem creep up onto the porch of the Radley household and someone we only see as a shadow comes looming up over Jem. As the scene played out, both Toshi and Allen put their hands over their eyes. Toshi told me he was terrified. "Why are you scared?" I asked him.
"Because they're playing Frankenstein music!" he wailed.
"Yeah, daddy! That's Frankenstein music!" wailed Allen as well. I asked them if they wanted to turn it off, and they both emphatically said "NO!" They were invested by this point, and while the film certainly pushes the suspense for the kids, it does it in a way that walks that fine line between exciting-scary and too-scary. And just when it feels like the Boo Radley story is the main mystery, the heart of the film, it's suddenly pushed aside in favor of the story of Atticus and the trial of Tom Robinson, and that sort of seemingly-random change of focus also approximates the way memory works. It's such a brilliantly structured film, and so simple on the surface of things.
Here's where the really hard conversations started to happen. And I'll confess that I side-stepped one part of the questions they asked because I felt like I could express an idea to them without opening things up to a conversation we're not ready to have yet. Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) is arrested for the rape of Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox), and when I explained what the charges against Tom were, I told the boys that he was accused of "attacking her." I told them that it was the worst sort of attack, and that it was a very serious thing to be accused of, but I did not detail what sort of attack rape actually is. The kids are still blissfully unaware of sex, and I'd like to keep it that way for now. Because of the era the film was made and, even more importantly, the era that the film depicts, there is nothing approaching a clinical description of the act. It's handled just right, and I imagine that Scout and Jem's understanding of the charges against Tom Robinson were pretty much exactly the same as Toshi and Allen's comprehension.
What they did understand was the fury that seemed to be directed at Tom by Bob Ewell (James Anderson) and the other white men who show up at the jail one night, looking to handle justice themselves. It's one of the great scenes in the film, and it is one of the acts of courage that defines not only Atticus, but his children. I've always felt like Spielberg paid direct homage to the scene in "Raiders Of The Lost Ark," and I can imagine the film must have seeded very deeply in his imagination when he saw it as a young film lover. Atticus is seated outside the jail, and an angry mob shows up. Violence is in the air until Jem, Scout, and Dill come running up to join Atticus on the steps. It's only when Scout recognizes one of the men in the crowd and starts talking to him about his son, one of her classmates, that the men realize that there's no way they're going to commit the act they came there for, and watching that realization settle over the crowd is one of the most moving moments in the film. I have been powerfully reshaped as a human being by my children, and their perspective on things often forces me to consider ideas that had been long since ingrained in my own world view, and in that moment, Atticus sees strength in his children that humbles him.
It is the trial itself that is probably the most famous material in the film, and this is where the biggest conversation of the night occurred. In the build up to the trial, Jem and Scout hear Atticus labeled a "nigger-lover," and that led us to pause the film and discuss what that meant. I explained that America is a country that has a long history of race issues, and that there was a tradition of people using words as weapons against other people, trying to make someone else lesser by giving them an ugly word as a label. I explained that in particular, the history of what's happened between whites and blacks in this country has led to violence and hatred and hundreds of years of unrest and trouble. When I tried to explain slavery to the boys, they had trouble understanding how it could have even been possible to buy or sell a person. The idea offended them on some core level, and then the idea of using a negative or destructive word to describe someone just because of their skin color shook them up. Allen is going through a phase right now where he does not like to be called anything that could even slightly be thought of as negative. I made the mistake of calling him "silly" last week, and he was livid for a full hour afterwards. So when I explained to them that the word they heard was one of the worst things someone could call another person, they took it seriously, and Allen, who spent the movie curled up on my lap, took me by the hand and promised he would never use it.
As they watched the trial unfold, I could see by what they asked and what they needed clarified that they understood not only that Tom Robinson was innocent, but why he was innocent. They got the right hand/left hand information that Atticus established, and after Tom's tearful, impassioned testimony, Toshi told me "I hope Tom doesn't go to jail. I don't think he hurt anybody." And as much as the race language in the film marks a milestone in the gradual wearing down of the innocence of my children, so does the outcome of the trial. Toshi was profoundly upset at the idea that someone could be innocent but still have to go to jail, and he asked me if all the people in jail are really guilty.
"I'd like to say yes, buddy, but it's just not true. Mistakes are made. Juries aren't perfect. And sometimes, they just don't listen."
That outraged him. He yelled at me, at the movie, at the mere idea. It was like a huge recoil, and his anger was palpable as we got into the movie again. Knowing what was about to come, I felt guilty, because the last half hour of that film is just one big gut punch, and sure enough, it was a powerful emotional experience for them. First, there's the most iconic moment in the film, when the entire upper section of the courthouse waits for Atticus, then stands as he passes. I told the boys it's a sign of respect, that the community recognized how hard Atticus had tried for them, and Toshi told Allen to stand up, too, then ordered me onto my feet. When the reveal comes that Tom tried to escape and was killed, it was too much for Toshi emotionally, and suddenly I had both the boys in my lap. Allen takes his emotional cues from Toshi, so when he saw tears in Toshi's eyes, he got equally upset.
But it's the sequence at the end of the film, when Jem and Scout are walking home from the play through the dark woods, where I felt like maybe I had made a mistake. It was so visceral to them, so immediate, so real, that when someone started to put hands on the kids, attacking them, I could feel Toshi shaking. But he wouldn't look away. He saw someone else step in. He saw how that person saved Jem, saved Scout. He leaned closer to the screen, trying to see who it was. And when the film finally turns its final card and reveals Boo Radley standing there in Jem's room, behind the door, Toshi got a little weepy again. "Boo's not a bad guy?" he asked me.
"No. They were scared of him, but they didn't have to be. He's not scary. He saved them."
"Everyone thought Boo was scary, but he wasn't."
"And everyone thought Tom hurt that lady. But he didn't."
"That's not fair." And when he finally cried, real tears, the kind of crying you can only manage when you're a child, his whole body behind it, he said that a few more times, almost choking on the indignity of it. "That's not fair, daddy."
We talked for an hour or so after the movie. We talked about my parents and the part of the country where they grew up, around Memphis and Mississippi and Alabama. We talked about the changes they saw and lived through, about the world their parents lived in, and about the world my boys stand to inherit. We talked about how life sometimes isn't fair, and how it's hard to do the right thing when you know you may not get the result you want from it. We talked about Atticus and Jem and Scout, and about Harper Lee and her book, and about the way movies can sometimes tell an untrue story that says very true things.
And as for me? I almost made it through the night unscathed, holding it together for the boys. It was only later, as I tucked them in, that Toshi told me he liked it when Scout said that Atticus was good at explaining things. "You're good at explaining things, too, daddy," he told me, and I felt like I would have a hard time answering him and not sounding like I was struggling with emotion. I just kissed him and tucked him in, then went to kiss Allen and tuck him in as well.
"Yeah," Allen said, snuggled in among his stuffed birds and his elephant and his Totoro pillow. "You're real good at 'splaining, daddy."
As I turned out the light and paused in the door, already hearing their breathing settle into the slower, regular rhythms of sleep, Toshi said one last thing, "Maybe we can watch it again. And this time, I won't be scared at all. This time, I want to see Boo and Tom. I like them. I like them a lot."
"To Kill A Mockingbird" is in stores now on Blu-ray in a gorgeous new edition.
"Film Nerd 2.0" remains, in every sense of the word, an irregular column: