The movie depicts the prevalence of identity-based discrimination portraying institutional racism which was ubiquitous in the society at the time and is still relevant in the 21st Century.
Released in 1962, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is an American Legal Drama based on Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. This movie bagged 3 Academy Awards (Oscars) and star character of the movie – Atticus Finch, played by George Peck, was chosen to be the greatest movie hero of the 20th Century.
Set in the backdrop of early 1930s in the town of Maycomb (fictional), the movie revolves around the themes of Prejudice, Class Distinction, Racial Inequality and Social Injustice. The plot revolves around Tom Robinson and the sub-plot is constructed around Boo Radley, the two mockingbirds.
It all begins in the summer when a boy named Dill meets and befriends Scout and her brother, Jem. Initially after playing games together, they develop a fascination for Boo Radley, a recluse who lives in their neighbourhood. They often go out spying to catch a glimpse of him. Though Mr Radley never meets anyone owning to his reserved nature but he tries to connect with the siblings through his apparent gifts for them, hidden in the knothole of a tree. Atticus Finch, father of the siblings, is a reputed lawyer in the town. He is asked to take on a case to defend Tom Robinson, an African-American accused of raping a white girl. Despite knowing the danger the task carried to him and his family, he agreed.
In the trial, Atticus is convincingly able to bring out Tom’s innocence and even prove that it was not Tom rather it was the white girl’s father who physically and sexually assaulted her. But to his consternation, an all-white-jury finds Tom guilty. Tom, devastated, while trying to flee the prison authorities was shot dead, thereby, leading to the killing of the metaphoric mockingbird.
One evening, Jem and Scout were returning home from a school pageant show when they were attacked by the father of the white girl. Scout didn’t get hurt owing to the nature of the costume that she wore but Jem got his arm broken. They were saved by Boo Radley, who in the course of saving them, kills the attacker. The sheriff insists Atticus to cover up for Boo Radley in order to protect him from any unwanted publicity, to which Atticus accedes as he understands that it’s a ‘sin to kill a mockingbird’.
WHAT'S THE LAW BEHIND IT?
Being a Legal Drama, it had some focal points involving legal principles and concepts, including the conflict between Circumstantial Evidence and Direct Evidence and Contentions about Jury Trial. (1) Circumstantial Evidence – Evidence which requires a reasonable inference to be relied upon so as to connect it to the conclusion of a fact, e.g., medical evidence such as forensic reports, fingerprints & physical examination. (2) Direct Evidence – It is an evidence which doesn’t require an inference to connect it to the conclusion of a fact, e.g., testimony.
In procedure of law, Direct Evidence is given priority over Circumstantial Evidence, barring a few instances where the latter is so strong and unambiguous that it points to the conclusion ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. On the other hand, Direct Evidence can be dubious at times, as a person may give a false testimony, especially when in the case of either of the parties involved. In Tom’s case, Atticus was cogently able to put forth strong Circumstantial Evidence which couldn’t be refuted, while the Direct Evidence consisted of the dubious testimonies made by the while girl and her father. The evidence presented by Atticus was that Tom’s left arm was dysfunctional while the white girl couldn’t have been assaulted by anyone except someone with a strong left arm.
JURY TRIALS RAISE CONCERNS
A Jury Trial is a method of legal proceeding in which a group of 12 reputable people of the society convene to pronounce a verdict. Now, the biggest doubt over the usage of this method is that the jurors may or may not have a legal background or knowledge of law which means they are not well-equipped to see the case facts and the evidence brought forth through the prism of law. Some of the other contentions are that the jury can be influenced by emotional arguments, prejudices and they can be manipulated & corrupted easily. And all these things ultimately lead to a Miscarriage of Justice. In the movie, the jury consisted of white men only. And this is reflected in their verdict, as they adjudged the case on the basis of their prejudices despite being presented with the necessary evidence for acquittal.
WHY IS IT RELEVANT TODAY
To Kill a Mockingbird resonated deeply with the country’s situation and within its people, striking the words – Rights for Equality. It was released in 1962 when the Civil Rights Movement was at its pinnacle. The following year, during the famous March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. went on to deliver one of the most legendary speeches in documented history – “I Have a Dream”. The main purpose of this Movement, March and Speech was to campaign for Africa-American’s rights and to end racism.
The movie depicts the prevalence of identity-based discrimination portraying institutional racism which was ubiquitous in the society at the time and is still relevant in the 21st Century. The African-American community faced more atrocity in those times. And due to racial and social inequality, today the African-Americans are the most vulnerable. They still live in separate neighbourhoods, which are generally on the outskirts of the city in sub-urban areas. In the trial-scene of the movie, the black people were made to sit in the balcony while white people occupied the front seats which is a direct reference to the existing situation in the aforementioned facts.
The movie also talked about the social injustice when an all-white-jury used their prejudice instead of reasoning to determine the verdict. Owing to the prejudices against the African-Americans, there have been a lot of instances where they were wrongly and abhorrently punished, the most contemporaneous of them being the custodial death of George Floyd which shook the roots of humanity and led to a global protest – the Black Lives Matter Movement. The atrocities leading to the movement were so abominable that the UN had to set up an inquiry against it.
Morality is yet another aspect presented in the movie. The moral-codes in those times interdicted the elopement of whites with blacks. It was considered a sin and the punishment would constitute social ostracization.
CONCLUSION: WHAT IT TEACHES
In the context of budding lawyers, Atticus Finch is the paragon of an ethical lawyer with much to teach. Overall, the movie imparts the courage to stand up against the society which is deranged with preconceived notions and prejudices. Here, Atticus Finch stood up against the society predominated by white-supremacy, having knowledge of the dangers that might follow.
By letting Boo Radley off the hook in the end, the movie gives us a message to see things from others’ perspective. As for a recluse, the social interaction that might have followed after he saved the life of Jem & Scout might be a punishment or it may kill the inner-self of that human being.
Though a defence attorney is often seen as a person whose persuasive tone and intimidating tone is his/her strong suit, Atticus Finch was a defence lawyer who presented logical arguments and substantive inside the parameters of the ethical codes of a lawyer refraining himself from the practices of shouting at and intimidating his opponents.
The duty of an attorney is generally limited to the court but Atticus Finch risked his own life guarding Tom Robinson. This shows that Atticus carried integrity and his fight for justice didn’t limit him, which also shows the sincerity he had for his work.
“With power comes responsibility”, a phrase often used but rarely implemented. Atticus was among the very few who could see the plight of African-Americans and so he knew, he had to accept the case and fight diligently, so that he could save this community by setting a precedent.
Cover Image Credits: Nilay J.