Director: Robert Mulligan,
Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book written by Harper Lee, and published in the year 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird, is one of the best legal movies in Cinema starring screen legends like Gregory Peck and Robert Duvall. The movie is centered on the Finch family who live in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. Maycomb in this story represents the idealized close knit southern town and is based somewhat on the Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville Alabama.
I have watched this movie close to a dozen times at least, and while I would not go so far as to claim that it surpasses the book, the faithful on screen retelling comes a close second. At its heart, the movie deals with the trial of Tom Robinson, a negro who was accused of raping a white woman. However the events leading upto the trial form a central part of the movie and are recited through the eyes of young Scout Finch, whose innocent 6-year old mind cannot comprehend the prejudices and rationales of the adult world. Her mind is as innocent and carefree as the mockingbird – which symbolizes innocence in this movie.
Most notable of all is the character of Atticus Finch played beautifully by Mr. Gregory Peck. Standing 6 feet tall and dressed in impeccable three piece suits, he stands as the epitome of wisdom and wit. His words and actions indicate how deeply he believes in the importance of equality, democracy and justice for all. He is the pivotal character in the lives of the three children as well as a central figure that represents Tom Robinson in his trial.
The Scottsboro Case: The trial in the movie is somewhat similar to the Scottsboro Case that was decided way back in the 1930’s, where 9 African American boys were accused of raping two girls named Ruby Bates and Victoria Price. This incident gave birth to a landmark set of decisions that dealt with racism and the right to a fair trial. On March 25, 1931, several white teenagers on a freight train traveling between Chattanooga and Memphis, Tennessee jumped off the train and reported to the sheriff that they had been attacked by a group of black teenagers. The sheriff stopped and searched the train at Paint Rock, Alabama, arrested the black teenagers, and found two young white women who accused the teenagers of rape. The case was first heard in Scottsboro, Alabama, in three rushed trials, where the defendants received poor legal representation. All but twelve-year-old Roy Wright were convicted of rape and sentenced to death, the common sentence in Alabama at the time for black men convicted of raping white women.
The case was subsequently appealed but the Alabama Supreme Court reached the same verdict. However Chief Justice John C. Anderson dissented, however, ruling that the defendants had been denied an impartial jury, fair trial, fair sentencing, and effective counsel. The matter was remanded back to the lower courts for retrial. During the retrials, one of the alleged victims admitted fabricating the rape story and asserted that none of the Scottsboro Boys touched either of the white women. The jury found the defendants guilty, but the judge set aside the verdict and granted a new trial. Despite this, after the new trial, the verdict was still the same – guilty. The cases were ultimately tried three times. Charges were finally dropped for four of the nine defendants. Sentences for the rest ranged from 75 years to death. “The Scottsboro Boys and their case is now widely considered a miscarriage of justice, particularly highlighted by the all-white jury.
Lynching: The movie also showcases several other justice issues of the day like the act of Lynching. Lynching is an extra-legal trial and punishment by an informal group. It is most often used to characterize informal public executions by a mob, often by hanging, in order to punish an alleged transgressor, or to intimidate a minority group. It is an extreme form of informal group social control. Lynchings were common during the reconstruction period after the Civil War and subsequently all the way through the early 19thy century. The ideology behind lynching, directly connected with denial of political and social equality, was stated forthrightly by Benjamin Tillman, governor of South Carolina and later a United States Senator:
“We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him”
The last persons to be lynched were Thomas Shipp and Abram Sharp. Te two had been arrested on charges of robbing a killing a white factory worker and raping his girlfriend. A large crowd broke into the jail with sledgehammers, beat the men, and hanged them. Even police officers in the crowd cooperated in the lynching.
A law was subsequently passed that prohibited such brutal acts of intimidation.Title 18, U.S.C., Section 241, is the civil rights conspiracy statute, which makes it unlawful for two or more persons to conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person of any state, territory, or district in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him/her by the Constitution or the laws of the United States and further makes it unlawful for two or more persons to go in disguise on the highway or premises of another person with intent to prevent or hinder his or her free exercise or enjoyment of such rights.
In the movie, a similar lynch mob tries to break into the police station where the accused Tom Robinson was held. It is implied that they meant to deliver their own version of ruthless justice. They are stopped in this attempt by the presence of Atticus Finch, who maintains a vigil before the building; and the arrival of the three children whose presence reminds the mob of their humanity.
Court Room Scene: The Court room scene in the movie where the trial of Tom Robinson takes place is another masterpiece. Now Atticus in this case is representing the alleged rapist. Tom Robinson is a Negro who was accused of raping the victim Mayella Ewell – a white woman from a poor and ignorant background. Now in general, a rape trial is bound to be an ugly affair with the victim being forced to describe events in open court. Add to this the ugly presence of racism and you have a trial that most lawyers would not be able to navigate easily. Yet the performance given by Mr. Peck is so spot-on that for a second you actually believe him to be the character. In this one instance of the movie, the actor and character become so united that you cannot know where one ends and the other begins. Gregory Peck epitomizes the integrity and moderation that is Atticus Finch and for that he deserves a standing ovation just as much as Atticus deserved his at the end of the trial.
Conclusion: Atticus Finch serves as a reminder of what it means to be a Lawyer in a faulty legal system. Unlike the Harvey Specters and Alan Shores of todays television, Finch is a quieter figure – understated and humble. He doesn’t have Specters panache or Shore’s penchant for flamboyant speeches. Nonetheless hi character is one that ought to be aspired to by every student of law. If for that reason alone, this movie is a must watch for people in general and law students in particular.
This Image from here
Author: Puja Nair, National Law University Odisha