There’s a handful of roles made for a single actor. It’s rare that an audience will remember an actor by a single role. It takes a confluence of happenstance–timing being the big one. The right actor in the right circumstance with the right personality and experience meets the right writer who writes for the right projection of self; the plot is timely and impactful and the characterization is meaningful, riddled with emotional cues and the director and supporting cast have the right combination of empathy to allow the role to breathe or constrict, as written.
This is rare. It’s rare to get a handful of these circumstances in the same state, and even more unlikely to have them convalesce on the same set. George C. Scott as General Patton in Patton is one. Daniel Day-Lewis bucks this trend and seemingly rearranges spacetime to force the pieces together as Christy Brown in My Left Foot, William Cutting in Gangs of New York, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, President Lincoln in Lincoln, and about half a dozen others. One more to add to this list is Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
We’ve got to consider context, too. The external factors that audiences have access to were off the radar to audiences in 1962: it was an age of simmering indifference and false innocence. Americans were lulled into great times of growth. Post-war America ushered in a generation of prosperity and security, mildly plagued by simmering tensions in the East. Fathers and brothers who served their country and came home in Europe or Asia were rewarded with access to education, credit and stable jobs. It was never this way for black Americans, though. It wasn’t even a secret.
Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird from within an era of piercing failure of justice. Her words, with the benefit of experience, said the quiet part deceptively loud. Through her characters, tightly constructed, the reader sought idealism and the aforementioned justice for humanity. She defended different and championed compassion for the men and women she made. What American idealism had done for 300 years–dehumanized the black experience–Harper Lee, herself white, tried to tackle over 200 or so pages. For whatever looming threat lurked overseas unbeknownst for generations, the internal war we’d been fighting in America raged, nearly invisible to the naked eye. We’d fought to free the slaves a hundred years ago, but the lives of others remained nominally unaffected. Never forget Emmett Till.
Lee’s book, and Robert Mulligan’s movie, is what gives those who would otherwise ignore civil rights of others standing to fight for them, for all Americans, and especially black Americans.
A positive and negative of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, unflinching defender of the downtrodden and underprivileged, is his whiteness. First, the negative, and it’s not unique to To Kill a Mockingbird, is white savior/white guilt. It’s a complex that’s been back-traced to older media, which often sought to tackle racism with a blunt edge. To Kill a Mockingbird‘s courtroom scene is marvelous and only half as damning as it was in the book, but it’s strange to think of its outcome–a unanimous conviction for a clearly innocent Tom Robinson–as a victory, even as Atticus Finch proves his case beyond a reasonable doubt (which, let’s note, he didn’t have to do, since it’s the state’s duty to prove guilt, not the other way around; but the rules seemed to be different for nonwhite folks, and still are).
Is Atticus Finch the champion of civil rights? Is that the takeaway we want from this movie? I think yes. But the outcome is Pyrrhic; it’s almost as if black death, and a community’s suffering takes a backseat to celebrate the only white man who dared care. Yes, he risked life and limb to discharge his duty as an advocate for justice, but what about Tom Robinson? The last we hear from him is that he dies before Atticus can file an appeal with a higher court. That’s all. Let’s celebrate champions who swim like salmon against the mighty current, but let’s not lose focus that To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t a story of heroes, it’s a tale of cruel fates.
Second, the positive. Even if Tom Robinson is an afterthought in his own story, the lore of Atticus Finch has inspired real people to do real work in amending the future history for civil rights. Atticus, fictional but based on Harper Lee’s real father, inspired a generation of middle-schoolers to practice humanity, sometimes through law. This is a noted phenomenon and is important to cherish, even if hard to quantify.
Here’s what’s true for an audience: a character usually connects better when its traits match what an audience member sees in herself. So it was a tradeoff: does Harper Lee recharacterize Atticus Finch as Thurgood Marshall? A black lawyer to inspire new black lawyers bucking trends in Depression-era history? Create an anachronism for the sake of story? No: that’s not what To Kill a Mockingbird is; it’s a plea for empathy from a largely white audience reeling from largess. So Atticus needed to be white, if only so a little white boy sees that a man of principle and justice can look like him to help a man of principle and justice who doesn’t.
Revisionist history, intentional or not, is entertaining and thought-provoking, but discussion can often lead to a sense that the conversation is a waste of time. History is written and we live with its consequences. But history is not predetermined, even if change feels impossible. All it takes is a critical look at Atticus Finch, understanding that To Kill a Mockingbird is fiction (even if it feels real) and a commitment to understanding privilege as a modern tool for justice, especially if it means a white savior becomes a white ally in the process.
To Kill a Mockingbird lost in 1962 to Lawrence of Arabia, seemingly as a rebuke of the civil rights’ film as the most culturally relevant (Gregory Peck did win a Best Actor award). Hollywood loves epics, and sometimes it felt as if longer meant better. What it meant was the ability to hold a cast and crew together for longer, and usually cost more. Lawrence of Arabia is a wonderful movie, and Peter O’Toole and Alec Guinness do a job characterizing the humanity and spirit of misinterpreted hero T.E. Lawrence. The other three nominees: The Longest Day (war-movie fatigue), The Music Man (a few years early on the musical) and Mutiny on the Bounty (another less-epic, epic) hold up, making 1962 a challenge to decipher. To re-roll means likely Lawrence of Arabia 8 of 10 times. But within the 2 of 10 margin, there’s hope for a different outcome, a dream.