Last night, after Steve and I returned from Tulsa, after we unpacked, after we put up the Christmas tree, we sat down to watch To Kill a Mockingbird. Steve had never seen the movie before, and I was pretty sure he’d like it. He did, very much.
As many of you know, we often do writing prompts together. On this thankfully lazy Sunday morning, I suggested we write for ten minutes about what touched each of us about the movie last night.
I was surprised about the difference in what each of us wrote.
Despite Gregory Peck’s eloquent and convincing closing argument, his client, Tom Robinson, was found guilty, and was later shot trying to escape. All the evidence pointed in one direction, social bias and pressure in the other.
Most of us realize there’s something amiss when when a police officer fires eight bullets into an unarmed black man, no matter how big he was; yet we need to make sense of it, justify it. We need scapegoats, villains, socially-identified victims, but it leaves us uneasy, anxious.
We are living wrong when we normalize hate and violence, we can’t pass up the provocateur. In the movie, it’s Boo–the outcast–who sees the injustice and intervenes, brings about justice. But the movie suggests that at a deeper level people get it, the sheriff gets that the villain, Bob Ewell–though too easily a villain–dies as a result of his unending need for revenge, his need to externalize his hatred, to find it in others (Tom Robinson) and then to kill for it. He’s on a perpetual rampage because he can’t stand the ambiguity, can’t see the log in his own eye.
The scene that touched me most was when Bob Ewell spit in Atticus’s face. Atticus stood for a long time, then wiped his face and walked on past Ewell, leaving Ewell with nothing to fight, which he needs. He needs to provoke, to engage, to feel connected, otherwise he’s miserable, empty, lost, diminished.
Atticus left him. Still his need for vengeance, reinforced by society, wouldn’t pass. He couldn’t let go, and he lived in the mistaken idealization that he could destroy the enemy and make his world more perfect. But he was digging his own grave, turning a neutral world against him.
Atticus, on the other hand, kept walking through injustice, not absorbing it, not taking the bait. He never got hooked into the need to retaliate. He acted with faith, that eventually good would prevail.
There were many scenes that touched me–the integrity of Atticus, Scout’s and Jem’s love and respect for their father, Scout’s innocence, the moment Jem stood up to Atticus and said, “no.” It’s tough to choose. But I think I’d have to say what touched me most were the moments when Atticus went from respected attorney to loving father. Here are some of the scenes I remember:
2) Later, Atticus sat in the porch swing and listened to a conversation between Scout and Jem about their mother. The longing in his eyes, not only for the wife he missed, but also for the mother his children missed, even for what their mother missed in seeing her children grow up–brought tears to my eyes.
3) While Atticus guarded Tom Robinson, his children showed up and suddenly, his brave, calm demeanor was shattered. He became frightened, protective, even angry, demanding that his children leave the dangerous situation.
4) When Atticus ran out of the house after Boo brought Jem home, he shouted for Scout. Again, his calm, brave demeanor was overtaken by fear over what might have happened to her.
5) Finally, at the end of the movie, Scout curled up in his lap like it was the safest place on earth. When the narrator (a grown-up Scout) said he stayed in Jem’s room all night and into the morning, I believed Atticus, above all else, was a father who loved his children.
Here’s a haiku I wrote that appears in my book Life: Haiku by Haiku:
mischievous Scout sought
adventure, but instead found
compassion for Boo