In 1960 a novel appeared that became what some have called The Great American Novel. It was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Set in a small, fictional town in 1930’s depressed Georgia, Ms. Lee captured her own childhood growing up in the segregated South. Her one and only novel, it won a Pulitzer Prize and was the basis for the 1962 film some have named The Great American Film. The novel and the movie struck familiar chords with Americans. They both changed our country for the better.
A familiar, semi-autobiographical story of a young girl and her older brother growing up over a three-year period, the novel sees characters and events from the children’s viewpoint. Their innocence and devotion to their father and each other are the mainstays for what happens. Let’s tie this classic film to a few others with similar themes because much of what happens in these movies is basic to America and what we attempt to aspire to: our Founding Fathers’ principles transformed into daily life. Do we live up to those treasured ideals, do we make them work for all Americans, every day, no matter the circumstances?
Atticus Finch (portrayed by Gregory Peck), the small-town lawyer and father to Scout and Jem, has to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, in an all-too-familiar criminal case: a white woman accuses him of rape. The Jim Crow segregation system in the South made these types of cases pretty much open-and-shut and the black man was always found guilty – if there was an actual trial in the first place. Lynchings were commonplace events as white citizens believed they could take the law into their own hands without fear of the law. What made this case different for its time was Atticus defending the black man because he knew Tom Robinson was innocent.
French author, Emile Zola, took on the cause of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Army captain unjustly accused of treason solely because he was Jewish. Zola spends the rest of his life writing to reopen the case and eventually Dreyfus is freed from the infamous French prison, Devil’s Island. Paul Muni portrayed Zola in the 1937 film, The Life of Emile Zola. His campaign to free an innocent man made Zola unpopular at the time and scorned by many French. Anti-Semitism was always just below the surface of French life and the Dreyfus Case forced it into public view for years. Zola took up the cause because he knew Dreyfus was innocent.
There’s a similar theme in the 1991 film, Fried Green Tomatoes. Rather than ignoring the prejudices and injustices of the Jim Crow system they lived with every day, Idgie Threadgoode (Mary Stuart Masterson) and Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker), two young white women who run a small-town cafe, employ a young black man unjustly accused of murder. They fight the obvious hate and intolerance, and a system that measures people by skin color only.
In 1996 A Time To Kill was released based on John Grisham’s popular novel. A black man in Mississippi, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), kills two white men who have raped his young daughter. The NAACP wants their high-powered Northern attorneys to defend him but instead Carl Lee chooses a friend, Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), a local white attorney. Despite incredible pressures from friends and family, threats on his life and certain knowledge that it may kill his career, Brigance takes up the fight and wins. Once again, we see someone defending an unpopular cause, risking everything to fight for their beliefs and principles in the face of defeat.
So here was a novel that becomes a runaway best-seller in 1960 and an Academy-Award-winning film based on the novel a scant two years later. The struggle for civil rights for African-Americans in America is only a few years old when these two events occur. To Kill A Mockingbird brought home how everyday people become heroes, sometimes unknowingly like Atticus Finch, and in small yet powerful ways change America and the world. Maybe Atticus is The Great American Hero. Fifty years later in 2012 America is still facing the challenges of racial relations, we have an African-American President, but similar problems to 1962 without the overt prejudices existing then.
Gregory Peck said that when he read the script for the movie he immediately thought of his early childhood growing up in a small town like Maycomb; it was LaJolla, California. Harper Lee modeled Atticus on her real father, a lawyer. We all need everyday heroes, every day. Resist the fear of failure; take a stand; adopt the unpopular cause as your own; defend the weak; fight the tides of intolerance and ignorance that threaten to drown us: That is how progress, though slow and steady, respect and dignity move us all forward. That’s how hate, lack of knowledge and bigotry disappear.
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