Released smack-dab in the middle of the Civil Rights movement, To Kill a Mockingbird, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee, focuses on Atticus Finch’s (Gregory Peck) struggle for justice in a small, racist community, as he defends an obviously innocent African-American charged with raping a young white girl. Finch, as depicted in both the film and the novel, is one of our great American touchstones. He congenially balances widowed fatherhood with his quest for what’s right. He takes the impossible case with quiet fervor so as not to lose self-respect, risking the admiration of his neighbors and peers, and the safety of his children in the process.
Mockingbird cultivates a well-rounded story by following the events from his children’s perspective. They play, go to school, get into fights, and dare each other through the notoriously spooky Radley gates. These routines help to give a glimpse into the innocence Atticus attempts to protect. His daughter, Scout (Mary Badham), is still a joy to watch on screen. Between her tomboyish ways (in a film that takes place in 1932, no less) and her bold questions, she ably guides us through the claustrophobic atmosphere. She and Atticus get the beautifully rare opportunity to appreciate new spins on the humane rules that the father continually upholds while raising his children.
Atticus’s impassioned closing statement to the trial of Tom Robinson understandably won Peck an Oscar. His powerful call for fair treatment still rings true, as does the shame provoked by Scout’s friendliness to the townspeople who storm the jail in the hopes of getting to Robinson on the eve of the trial. To Kill a Mockingbird is an oldie but goody that can still entertain as it preaches.