To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird, a film-rendering of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name written by Harper Lee, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, is about an alleged rape case in which a black man is falsely accused. Atticus Finch has taken the decision to defend a young black man named Tom Robinson against rape charges made by a 19-year old, undereducated white woman, named Mayella Ewell. Atticus’ decision dismays the entire racist white community of Maycomb, a little Alabama town, but Atticus is not to be dissuaded.
The day of the actual trial arrives. People come to the court in hordes to witness the proceedings. Atticus’ children are told by the father to keep away from the court, they nevertheless manage to sneak in to watch their father in action. The truth unfolds gradually during the proceedings. Mayella and her father Bob Ewell are the accusers. As Atticus unravels the facts, we learn that Mayella is a friendless young girl, burdened with the care of half a dozen younger siblings. They live in poverty and squalor. Bob Ewell is the drunkard of the town. Tom Robinson used to pass by their house on the way to work, and sometimes Mayella used to ask him in for some domestic assistance. On the day in question, Mayella invites Tom as usual, but Tom finds that there is nothing to do for him. He also notices that the children are away. Meanwhile Mayella rushes up to him and kisses him.
Tom is taken by surprise and is trying to gain his orientation when Bob Ewell finds them. Tom leaves. Bob beats Mayella and abuses her, and later lodges a complaint against Tom with the sheriff. As Atticus discovers during the trial, the crucial evidence here in defense of Tom is that Mayella sustained some bruises on the right side of her face and not on the left. For this to happen, her assailant must have used his left hand. Now, Bob is a left-hander and Tom is actually a cripple who does not have a functional left hand. This fact clearly establishes that Tom did not rape and hurt Mayella, as alleged by her and her father, but it was most likely Bob who actually beat Mayella up in drunken rage. Atticus also establishes the motives of the accusers in charging a poor black man. Mayella could have lusted after Tom, and had an intention of starting an affair with him. But no sooner did she make the first move than she was caught by her father. Here the problem is that Tom may open his mouth and a rumor might spread that Mayella, a white woman, had feelings for a black man. This would have been an abomination in the racist community of their town. It could create a big scandal among the highly prejudiced people of Maycomb, and considerably damage Mayella’s prospects for marriage. And so, naturally, in a bid to pre-empt such a possibility, they plan to frame Tom Robinson and get rid of him.
Atticus’ arguments, however, do not appeal to the jury, they find Tom Robinson guilty just as was expected by everyone including Atticus himself. Atticus though does not give up, he considers making appeals to higher courts, but in the meantime Tom Robinson is shot during an escape attempt. In the months that follow, Bob Ewell becomes a menace to Atticus and threatens to attack his children.
To Kill a Mockingbird has many themes that work on many levels. But the very unassuming character of Gregory Peck / Atticus Finch stands towering in the entire movie; the story could be seen as being primarily about this man. Racial injustice, cruelty of man toward man — these are sad things, but the real tragedy of this story does not consist in these. It consists in the fact that Atticus had such a tremendous potential for greatness, yet he remains merely a small town lawyer, consigned to obscurity.
There is one essential mark of a great leader above all: empathy. This is what makes noble souls to think beyond themselves and rise above themselves. At one point, Atticus explains the principle of empathy to his daughter.
If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.
Atticus himself is driven by this great quality. If more people like Atticus had been the leaders of this great nation, untold amounts of unnecessary suffering and strife could have been spared. Through the subtle tragedy of its story and its protagonist, the movie succeeds in imprinting upon its viewer a deeply spiritual message: to learn to be able to stand in a another person’s shoes and walk around in them. In other words, empathy.