White Lies

My friend and (many years ago) former student, Wendy Adams, was kind enough to invite me to give a talk as part of the International Film Series that she runs at the College of Central Florida. And this seems like as good as anywhere to share what I had to say about To Kill a Mockingbird with more than just the dozen or so folks who were part of the Zoom presentation I gave earlier today.


Let me start with a line from James Baldwin: “I suspect that all these stories are designed to reassure us that no crime was committed.” He’s specifically commenting on classic Hollywood westerns, and their longstanding desire to portray the genocide of Native Americans as some kind of noble, necessary, and even enlightened chapter in the history of the nation. But he could just as easily be describing To Kill a Mockingbird.

For more than 60 years, Mockingbird — both the novel by Harper Lee, and the film directed by Robert Mulligan — has been widely celebrated as an exemplary tale about racial injustice. And I’m here today to tell you why that vision of the story is a lie. A white lie. Not in the sense that it’s small or inconsequential — because it’s neither of those things — but in the sense that it’s a lie told primarily by white people for the benefit of white people. To be blunt: Mockingbird isn’t a story about racial injustice. It’s an example of it. And it’s all the more disturbing an example because it’s been so commonly held up as if it were something better and more progressive than it really is.

Let us start with a simple fact about the narrative. Maycomb is a place where nothing of any dramatic importance happens. Nothing. As Lee says of the town early on in the novel, “A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County.” The only reason why there’s a story of any consequence to tell is because of the immense injustice that befalls Tom and Helen Robinson. Remove the Robinson family from Mockingbird, and all that’s left are the childish fantasies that Scout and Jem and Dill weave around the reclusive Boo Radley. That might be enough material for a heartwarming short story. Maybe. But that’s it. The Robinsons are absolutely pivotal to Mockingbird . . . and yet they are somehow practically invisible in the story’s actual telling.

To underscore how improbable this is, I want you to imagine a major Hollywood movie where a white man is accused of a horrible crime that he did not commit. This should be easy enough, since there are hundreds — maybe even thousands — of such films. And in the vast majority of them, the film’s action and dialogue are dominated by the white man’s efforts to prove his innocence — with a possible hefty side serving of the white woman who is the innocent white man’s love interest, and the emotional turmoil she goes through over her man’s situation.

By this standard, Mockingbird should be a film filled from start to finish with scenes featuring Brock Peters and Kim Hamilton. We would get to see them established as a happy, charming, and attractive couple before tragedy struck. We would get to watch them wrestle with their anger, their doubt, and their fear. We would get to witness their expressions of undying love for each other, their steadfast commitment to “find a way” to make everything alright, and their optimistic hope for a happy resolution. And then we would be rewarded with an emotional climax of some sort. Most likely, if we’re sticking to the formula, a triumphant moment of redemption and reunion. But if this is a serious dramatic tragedy, then maybe a melodramatic, heartbreaking, yet still somehow cathartic, defeat.

Of course, Mockingbird gives us almost none of this. Because it is not a story that actually cares about black lives, black love, black pain, black suffering, black grief, or black justice. Instead, it’s a film that gives us more than two hours of white children being precocious and playful and curious and reckless, with a healthy dose of a white lawyer being treated as some kind of demi-god, simply because he displays the kind of honesty and integrity that — in theory — should be standard behavior for any adult human being.

There is a lot I could say to support my main claim, but I’ve only got 20 minutes, and so I will limit myself to 5 main points.

1. Tom is in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. A crime that didn’t even happen. A mob shows up at the jail to lynch him. In any reasonable portrayal of this moment, Tom should be at the center of it. He is potentially about to be tortured and killed by a pack of vigilantes, and he has no meaningful way to defend himself from their violence. In a scene that takes almost 6 minutes of screentime, Tom never appears on screen. Not even for a quick cutaway shot of him waiting in helpless fear. We hear him say four words from off-screen at the very end of the scene after the mob has dispersed: “Mr. Finch? They gone?” Tom’s potential murder at the hands of a sizable portion of Maycomb’s menfolk is nothing more than a chance for us to bear witness to Atticus’ stoicism and Scout’s precociousness. Tom’s emotions and actions through all this are a complete mystery. Was he stoic and brave? Was he scared shitless? Had he managed to Macgyver some kind of surprisingly effective means of defending himself against the mob out of his jailhouse sheets and a piece of his shoe? Or was he really asleep the whole time, just like Atticus said, and only woke up when he heard the lynch mob’s cars driving away? We don’t know any of these things, because neither the book nor the film care enough about Tom or his life to bother showing us even a slice of them. He exists as little more than a convenient and disposable prop to help readers and viewers better appreciate Atticus’ grace under pressure.

To give Atticus his due, this scene is his one moment of genuine bravery — or, perhaps, his one moment of genuine foolishness. He knows that a lynch mob will show up for Tom, and he goes out to wait for them. Alone. Unarmed. It’s not at all clear how or why he thought he would be able to talk a dozen vigilantes out of their desire for blood. In the real Alabama of 1932, an unarmed white man who tried something like this would probably not have survived the encounter. One of the many lies that the film tells about race in America is that it manages to civilize the vigilantes. Real lynchings were violent, brutal, racist acts of terrorism. They were not mildly tense encounters between white people that could be resolved with a few stern words or a moment of sudden shaming.

2. In a film that runs for 129 minutes, Helen Robinson is on screen for only 30 seconds. We never see her in a close-up or in the frame by herself, and she spends most of those 30 seconds on the edge of the frame, in shadows, and/or obscured by the bodies of other characters. Her half minute of screentime is split between two scenes, which are themselves separated by more than an hour. She says a grand total of 5 words, both in her first scene. “Evening, Mr. Finch.” “Yes, sir.” In her second scene, her “dialogue” is limited to an implausibly restrained cry before she collapses to the ground.

The novel spends a bit more time and energy on Helen than the film does. Lee lets us know that the Robinsons have three children, and that Helen struggles to get work while Tom is in jail because of the town’s racism and the severity of what Tom has been accused of. Lee also gives us a very tiny glimpse of Helen’s fate after Tom’s death: his former employer takes her on, largely out of sympathy, and he has some strong words for Bob Ewell when it becomes clear that Ewell has been harassing Helen. But that’s the extent of it.

And even that accounting is generous to Lee. The chapter in which she gives us that brief narrative about Helen’s life after Tom begins: “Things did settle down, after a fashion, as Atticus said they would. By the middle of October, only two small things out of the ordinary happened to two Maycomb citizens. No, there were three things, and they did not directly concern us — the Finches — but in a way they did.” That third “small thing” — the afterthought that is tacked on to the two small things that happen to citizens — is the story of Helen. Helen’s “small thing” is easily the most dramatic — and traumatic — of the three, and it takes Lee more words to tell it than the other two combined. And yet it still gets presented as something so small that it’s almost not worth mentioning in comparison to two other small things, with all three events only worth mentioning at all because “in a way” they somehow concerned the real center of Lee’s story: the Finch family.

In any fair account of what happened in Maycomb in 1932, Helen Robinson should be the second most prominent character. (Tom should be the first.) Yet almost anything we might know — or think we know — about her and her life is guesswork. We don’t learn anything about what she does or where she comes from. How she and Tom met, how they fell in love, or even if they fell in love. We don’t know whether their marriage was happy or troubled. We don’t know whether her first response to the news of Tom’s arrest was outraged disbelief that anyone might think her man was capable of such a horrible crime or devastating doubts about who this man she had made a life with really was. We don’t know why she wasn’t in the courtroom when her husband was on trial. We don’t know how she responded to the news of the verdict. We don’t know what she told their children about any of this. Her story is a personal tragedy of biblical, Homeric, Shakespearean, Cecil B. DeMillean proportions . . . and all we see of it is a subdued flash of shock and grief that doesn’t last long enough for Kim Hamilton — the woman who portrayed Helen — to be included in the film’s on-screen credits.

3. Mockingbird’s status as a story primarily about and for white people is something that Lee makes clear from the very start of the novel. “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow,” is how the book begins, and it’s then followed up by a reflection on “the events leading up to his accident” and where the story should properly begin. Significantly, Lee decides that the real beginning of the story is another act of racist violence and injustice (though that’s not the way she frames it) that only matters because of how it benefited white people: “I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson. If General Jackson hadn’t run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama, and where would we be if he hadn’t?” Jackson’s mass slaughter of the indigenous population gets reframed as an innocent clearing of the land on which the Finches came to live, and is only relevant because Lee wants to tell us a shaggy dog story about how Jem Scout came to get his arm broken.

Bracketing (and, to be clear, that requires a mighty big bracket) the unexamined racism in such a simplified description of Jackson’s genocidal crimes, the connection that Lee makes between large-scale cultural/political forces and individual personal traumas — on the very first page of the novel, no less — demonstrates an impressively nuanced understanding of cause and effect . . . and yet somehow it is still not enough to create any meaningful narrative space for the Robinson family’s epic grief, or their shattered lives. Jem’s broken arm is the trauma that makes the entire rest of the story matter enough to tell — at least for Lee — and, as she tells us in the book’s second sentence, even that trauma wasn’t severe enough to prevent Jem from going on to play football, and “he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.”

Let us also recognize that, even though its focuses most of its time and energy on the lives of white children, Mockingbird is a story told by the adult version of Scout reflecting back on her childhood. It might be possible to forgive — or at least understand — the story’s marginalization of the black people who really should be at its center, if it were a tale being told by Scout more or less “live” as she was first experiencing the events in question. But the grown-up Jean Louise Finch has had time to mature and reflect on these events at her leisure. She knows enough to realize that, if the story of what happened to her brother in the Alabama woods that night in 1932 is going to make any sense at all, she needs to explain the events that led up to that attack. And yet, somehow, her narration of those events manages to push the people whose lives really were ruined that year to the very margins of her tale.

4. Atticus Finch is wise enough in the ways of the world to sit up all night in front of the jail because he knows that, if he doesn’t, his neighbors will show up to take the law into their own hands, and Tom Robinson won’t live to see the dawn. He knows that his white neighbors will have no compunction about lying, under penalty of perjury, in order to make sure that Tom is convicted and punished for a crime that they know full well he didn’t commit. And we know that he knows these things because the film takes great pains — in both the lynch mob scene and the trial scene — to emphasize that Atticus is not naive enough to assume that a black man accused of raping a white woman could ever get a fair trial in Maycomb.

And yet, when Heck Tate shows up to tell Atticus that Tom was killed while being transported to prison because he “ran like a crazy man” to escape, Atticus accepts this fable as the plain and simple truth. He somehow seems to have completely forgotten that his neighbors were ready to lynch Tom the night before, and that the entire case against Tom hinged on white folks willing to tell — and believe — obvious, implausible lies in order to pretend that whatever horrible fate might befall a black man was nothing more than what he supposedly deserved. Are we really supposed to believe that Tom — who showed remarkable stoicism and courage on the witness stand, even in the face of what he surely knew would be a futile defense that would end in a grave injustice — that he suddenly panicked and ran away from agents of the law who would feel no compunction about gunning him down? Are we really supposed to believe that a white sheriff who didn’t need physical evidence that Mayella Ewell was raped in order to testify under oath against a black man, that such a man would somehow tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth when he was not under oath about how that same black man was killed? I say No. Like James Baldwin, “I suspect that all these stories are designed to reassure us that no crime was committed.” Tom Robinson was lynched after all. And the film lies when it tells us anything different.

5. There is a part of me that’s almost — emphasis on “almost” — willing to give Mockingbird a pass for its multiple racial sins because it would be unrealistic to expect anything much better from a mainstream Hollywood movie made in 1962. It is, in many respects, very much a product of its time, and I can recognize — though only up to a point — that there was something mildly risky about even gesturing in the direction of the real lies that real white people in the real world tell all the time as a way to reassure themselves that real crimes committed against real black people are not crimes at all.

But that kind of “pass” is only justified — maybe — for films that fade back into the woodwork and remain nothing more than forgotten products of their time. Such a pass is not warranted, however, for a film like Mockingbird, which has been showered with honors and accolades ever since it was released. For both the 1962 Oscars and Golden Globes, it was nominated for Best Picture, and Gregory Peck won Best Actor for his performance as Atticus. The American Film Institute has twice listed it as one of the 100 greatest movies of all time, and they’ve named Atticus the greatest movie hero of the 20th century. The Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry. These are not minor accolades, nor do they stop coming with the passage of time. But let us be honest. Mockingbird is certainly not B-movie schlock, and Peck’s performance is very strong, but the film is also not exactly a tour de force of cinematic innovation. In the absence of any major aesthetic or technical achievements, the only reason why Mockingbird would seem to merit the extraordinarily lofty respect that it’s been given, over and over and over again, is because of its supposedly progressive message about racial injustice.

But a truly progressive film about racial injustice would need to pay serious, extended attention to black people, black lives, black pain, and black suffering. Mockingbird does not do this. It doesn’t even really try. At the end of the trial, after Tom has been unjustly convicted and taken away, Atticus walks out of the courtroom by himself and, in one of the most implausible moments I have ever witnessed in a “realistic” dramatic film, the black townsfolk of Maycomb in the gallery all rise to pay homage to him. Significantly, even though there are dozens of black people plainly visible all around him, Atticus simply ignores them, as if they weren’t there at all. Tragically, this is an apt metaphor for the film as a whole. Because even when black people are plainly visible — and, more than that, absolutely essential to the narrative — Mockingbird does everything it possibly can to ignore them, as if they weren’t there at all. This is not justice. It’s merely tragedy masquerading as justice, and with far far too many people willing to accept that masquerade as truth, because they would prefer to be reassured that no crime was committed.

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