I don’t remember the first time I read the Harper Lee classic To Kill a Mockingbird. I know I wasn’t old enough to grasp all the adult themes. What attracted me to it then was the depiction of Maycomb, the small Southern town that could’ve been Franklin. I had read children’s books with a similar setting, but nothing this grown up.
I hope that you already know the story of Atticus Finch and his children, Scout and Jem, and their neighbor Dill, who was based on Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote. Atticus, a lawyer, is appointed to represent a black man, Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. In the course of the movie, and even moreso in the book, you see the intricate social strata that could be found throughout the South for the century after the Civil War.
There were families like the Finches–educated, living in town. There were the rich landowners out in the country. There was a vast group of laborers–the Cunningham family in this case. They might’ve finished high school, but just as likely didn’t. But they were hard working and, except for the occasional Saturday night, law-abiding. Then you had the blacks who worked in the fields at the farms and in the kitchens of the houses in town. At the very lowest end of the scale were the Ewells–uneducated white trash who lived off the generosity of the county.
(I remember an encounter with one of our local “Ewells” in sixth grade. I was probably 11–I think she was at least 14. She had pasty skin and permanently greasy hair. She came up to me one day at lunch and said “me and my boyfriend done it last night.” Naturally, I said ‘Did what?” “We done it,” she said. Remember, this was before cable tv–I had no idea what she was talking about. I don’t know what ever happened to her.)
That was the way Harper Lee depicted life in Maycomb in 1932 and to my recollection it wasn’t that different in Franklin in 1965.
In the climatic courtroom scenes, Atticus proves that Tom Robinson–who only has the use of one arm–could not have beaten and raped Mayella. (Remember, this is 1932. There was no DNA evidence–Mayella hadn’t even seen a doctor.) According to Tom’s testimony, it was Mayella’s father who beat her.
Tom testifies that he often did small chores for Mayella for no pay. When asked why, he says that he felt sorry for her.
That is the crux of the movie…that a black man felt sorry for a white woman. That’s always about the time I start crying as well. Tom is convicted and dies the same day trying to escape. The scene where Atticus goes to tell Tom’s wife of his death is heart-breaking.
This is one of those movies that I will always watch. No telling how many times I’ve seen it. It was on today, and despite our beautiful spring-like weather, I watched. It’s also one of those rare movies that is as good as the book it’s based on.
Most movies about the South get it all wrong. Bad accents. Bad cliches. And they hardly ever get “y’all” right (it’s always plural). But native daughter Harper Lee understood. To Kill a Mockingbird was her only novel.
I think she knew that anything else would pale in comparison.