Saturday, January 15, 2011

Finch is still a hero


MARYVILLE, Tenn. -- Here it was, the perfect film ("To Kill A Mockingbird"), shown the perfect way (on the big screen), in a perfect venue (the historic Palace Theater). Perfect, right?

Well, almost.

I walked into the theater about 6:40 last night and started looking for the projection room. My heart fell a bit when I realized the film was going to be shown via digital projection. Movies on the big screen should ALWAYS be shown via a 35 millimeter print.

Prior to the picture, organizers felt the need to have a law professor from UT deliver a bit-too-long essay on the film and its themes. The movie was being shown as part of Blount County's Martin Luther King Jr. Week festivities.

Her talk ended up OK, but she brought up an infamous 2009 New Yorker article by UK-born Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell that attacks the notion that the beloved Atticus Finch of the novel and film is a Civil Rights pioneer.

I read the piece when it was published and did so again this morning. What the writer does is one of the biggest sins of the politically-correct era -- he uses modern-day values to judge an earlier time. He also has no sense of historical perspective. He's also just plain wrong.

Gladwell says that Finch isn't a Civil Rights hero because he doesn't do enough to shake things up in Maycomb during and after Tom Robinson's trial. (For those unfamiliar with the novel and film, Robinson is falsely accused of raping a white woman; Finch is his lawyer.)

Well, let's think about it. The novel is set in 1932 Alabama. A prominent white lawyer vigorously defending a black man of such a crime at that time in that place would have been nothing short of bold and revolutionary. Period.

The writer also claims that Finch asks the jury to exchange one prejudice (about a black man) for another (about a poor white family). Wrong. What he does is ask the jury to believe the word of an honest man over the word of a liar.

Gladwell also unconvincingly compares Finch with populist Alabama Gov. James "Big Jim" Folsom. The problem with the comparison is that Finch as a character hails from the Depression-era South. Folsom was governor of Alabama following World War II.

After my blood pressure shot up thinking about this article, I calmed down and enjoyed the only movie I've ever seen that is just as good (if not better) than the fine novel on which it's based. Screenwriter Horton Foote deservedly won an Oscar for his excellent adaptation.

It's all here -- Gregory Peck's Academy Award-winning turn as Atticus, Elmer Bernstein's haunting musical score, Robert Duvall's screen debut as Boo Radley, Mary Badham's scene-stealing turn as the spunky Scout. It's a perfect picture, pure and simple.

"To Kill A Mockingbird," both Harper Lee's novel and the Robert Mulligan film, has done much to win over the hearts and minds of at least three generations of Americans -- and it's still doing so. Sheri Webber, one of my beloved high school English teachers, told me in 2007 that the novel continues to cause a vigorous debate in her 9th grade classroom over race relations and prejudice. And, yes, she says, the racism is still very much alive.

I don't know whether the New Yorker staff writer was trying to be cute, condescending or just plain controversial. Whatever the case, his thesis stinks, his piece smacks of shameless revisionism at best and regional prejudice at worst.

As for "To Kill A Mockingbird," it stands as an appeal to the better angels of our nature, a heartwarming tribute to the human spirit, a nod to the power of a young girl's honest innocence, a sober reminder of the danger of ignorance.

And, yes, my friends, Atticus Finch still stands too, as tall and heroic as he ever was.

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