POSTED April 5 2012

On Gregory Peck, “Mockingbird,” and the Presidential Imprimatur

Today marks the 96th birthday of Gregory Peck, who died in 2003, and whose signature role, as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, will be celebrated Saturday when the USA Network airs the restored 1962 film at 8 pm with a taped introduction by Pres. Obama.

I have mixed feelings about the movie version of Harper Lee’s exquisite novel. So did many others, among them Pauline Kael who wrote, that when Peck received his Oscar “there was a fair amount of derision in the country: Peck was better than usual, but in that same virtuously dull way.” It’s not Peck’s performance that gives me pause. I can’t imagine any other actor of his generation doing a better job of making virtue synonymous with father-love.

When I saw the film when I was eight or nine, roughly the same age as Atticus’ daughter, Scout, I was spellbound by its child’s-eye-view of the grownup world. The parallel plotlines about the Other — would innocent black sharecropper Tom Robinson be fconvicted of raping a white woman? Would brain-damaged Boo Radley hurt Scout and Jem? — left me breathless. Then, as now, just hearing Elmer Bernstein’s music-box score transported me to the withering heat of Maycomb. And what in the world was a chifferobe?

But when I grew up I couldn’t fail to note how the movie conformed to the treatment of race in Hollywood where, almost inevitably, the person of color sacrifices his life in order to make the white hero a better man.

So at first I was surprised that Pres. Obama was giving the film his imprimatur. And then I remembered what Atticus says to Scout, something I’ve internalized since first I saw Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”




  1. Debbie R says:

    You’re right about Hollywood and race: Even “Precious” had gorgeous, light-skinned women of color (teacher, social worker) as the heroines who save dark-skinned, obese Precious. But your article makes me draw a comparison between Mockingbird and Help (a white person trying to shape a new narrative on black people’s lives) — the former was much more deeply engaged with the realities of racism, and more able to reshape the world view of a child reader/viewer.

  2. I’ve never found that problem with Mockingbird, perhaps because first we read the book in ninth grade, then watched the movie and it seemed one of the most faithful adaptations of a book I’d seen. Given its time and setting, the white hero aspect didn’t bother me because I imagine that would be fairly close to how it would have to happen. Movies where that is a problem are Mississippi Burning, where instead of telling the story of the civil rights workers who were murdered, we focus on Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe as the white FBI agents trying to solve the crime; or the absolute worst example, Cry Freedom, which alleges to be a story about South Africa’s Steven Biko but turns out to be all about Kevin Kline’s character and his family.

  3. Lets remember the film was made in 1962, not 2012. They went as far as the times would allow.

    Non-liberal people tend to changing their attitudes slowly and reluctantly. No one film or book or song is going to ‘turn the switch.’ Mockingbird the film was, and remains, a symbolic turning point in the battle against hatred and bigotry. It is probably more important for energizing and reinforcing liberals than anything else. I rather doubt people who would vote for David Duke read the novel or saw the film.

  4. Horse Badorties says:

    Nobody ever talks about The Defiant Ones, a much more effective race message movie with much better acting.

  5. wwolfe says:

    I agree with Andrew sarris’s two criticisms of the movie: the makers could never quite see brock Peters’ characters as a complete human being, all good intentions notwithstanding, and the remarkable detail in the book’s picture of the town’s society is lacking in the movie. On the other hand, in my view the seeing Mary Badham and Gregory Peck together on film conveys much more emotion than reading about them on the page. So it’s a fair trade-off, I’d say.

  6. For me, the most provocative and interesting thing Barack Obama has ever said about any film (and maybe even about race as well) can be found on pp. 123-124 of Dreams From My Father. He recounts being dragged by his mother in New York (while he was still at Columbia) to see Black Orpheus at a revival house, which she had discovered at the age of sixteen. Obama describes himself squirming a bit through this vision of “childlike” black and brown Brazilians “as carefree birds in colorful plumage,” and wanted to leave about halfway through, until he saw, from the light of the screen, how enraptured his mother was, and realizes (something he clearly hints at without directly stating) that this film was very much on her mind when she first met his father.

    I’ve never much cared for the movie of To Kill a Mockingbird (I recall liking the novel), even though I like most of Mulligan’s other movies, because its picture of the South strikes me as basically bogus and unconvincing–including, I should add, Gregory Peck’s accent.

  7. Carrie Rickey says:

    @Jonathan: As you are a Southerner, I trust your ear. Thanks for the anecdote about “Black Orpheus.” When first I saw “Mockingbird,” I was so identified with Mary Badham and her relationship with Peck that it overwhelmed everything. When I showed it to our younger daughter a few years back, I was struck by Tom Robinson’s lack of anger. Ten years before, when I was asked to show it at a Philadelphia public school in the wake of the first OJ Simpson verdict, some African-American parents in the audience were indignant. “How could you reinforce the message that black people are eternal victims?” they demanded of the school principal (who, btw, was African-American.) I am always struck at how lived-in Henry Bumstead’s art direction is.

    And, of course, a guilty pleasure of watching it now is knowing that the character of Dill is based on the young Truman Capote.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please prove you\'re not a robot: * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.