The wisdom of Atticus

Recently, I watched a DVD of To Kill a Mockingbird, the 1962 film starring a perfectly-cast Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.  

I’ve loved Mockingbird, since I was a kid, though – for the past two decades – I’ve found it difficult to watch.

Here’s my story.

Late in 1994, I performed in the theatrical version of To Kill a Mockingbird at Abingdon’s Barter Theatre.  The play closely tracks the movie script – moving Tom Robinson’s rape trial to the critical point in the narrative, and turning Atticus into the central character.  His tomboy daughter, Scout – the central character and narrator of the novel – becomes an important, but secondary, role.

This change makes Atticus a dream role for a middle-aged actor, though – as a beginner – I wasn’t offered that plum.  Instead, the Barter offered me a couple of walk-ons – I think I actually spoke one word – for the munificent sum  of $100/week,  plus housing.

I agreed to do it if they made me the understudy to the well-known Philadelphia actor playing Atticus.  

That decision was a turning point in my theatrical career.  Preparatory to mounting their own production, the Birmingham Children’s Theatre sent their director to see our show.  He decided to read the understudy for Atticus.  Thus, in January, 1995, I headed to Alabama to play one of the iconic characters in American  literature.

I did all right.  I learned the intimidating, five-minute speech to the jury at the end of the trial scene.  Having some experience as a practicing attorney helped me with the courtroom scenes.  And, since I usually get along well with kids, I was comfortable playing a dad.

But as Atticus, I never quite got there.  It’s an incredibly difficult role.  Atticus appears imperturbable on the surface, but he’s a volcano underneath.  His love for his children, his passion for justice – and his justifiable outrage at those who would endanger either – are the stuff of grand opera.  Atticus almost never lets these passions show, but they are ever-present.

As a fairly new actor, I lacked the experience to find the emotional heart of such a character.  I got a little closer a few years later, when I reprised the role at Fort Lee.  

But watching Greg Peck – who gets every bit of Atticus – can be pretty humbling.  

Watching the movie again, after so many years, I was also struck by how much it emphasizes the courage of the moment:

“There’s been some high talk around town to the effect that I shouldn’t do much about defending this man,” Atticus tells Scout.  But he resolves to defend Tom Robinson with all his intellect and passion.   

The night before the trial, Atticus keeps watch at the jail, and faces down a lynch mob which shows up to obviate the need for a trial.

Tom Robinson shows great courage, too.  A black man accused of rape, he takes the stand to contradict the testimony of two whites – his purported victim, Mayella Ewell, and her father, the despicable Bob Ewell.

But Harper Lee’s novel deals with courage of a more enduring sort.

Just as Scout grows and changes through her interaction with neighbors of both races, many ages, and all sorts of social levels – so the town of Maycomb reveals its own slow process of evolution.

The reader sees this through the attitudes of many of the town’s “better” folks, who quietly approve of Atticus’ defending Tom Robinson.  And through the fact that the all-male, all-white jury deliberates for several hours before convicting the innocent Tom.

The novel celebrates both the splendid courage of the moment and the slower courage of persistence, over years and decades.  More often than not, it is courage of the latter type which ultimately succeeds.

In today’s America, on so many issues, our political process seems hopelessly deadlocked – precisely because those who favor change focus on winning elections rather than changing hearts and minds.

Sometimes, they succeed.  More often, they find themselves stymied by an equally determined opposition.  The history of abortion law illustrates the futility of trying to legislate without changing minds.  As does the history of gun control.

Temporary majorities might pass a law curbing abortion here – or imposing firearms restrictions there – but until minds are changed, most of these laws prove impermanent.
But look at the history of race relations over the fifty years since To Kill a Mockingbird lost out to Lawrence of Arabia for the Best Picture Oscar.  

Indeed, look at the history of same-sex marriage since Chicago won for Best Picture in 2003.

It turns out that real change takes place when it reflects a change in the hearts and minds of ordinary people – not just the machinations of politicians.

Such was the great wisdom of Harper Lee’s novel, if not the movie and the play that it spawned.

Such was the wisdom of the original Atticus Finch. 

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