To Kill a Racist Subculture A rhetorical analysis of Atticus' closing statements in Robert Mulligan's "To Kill a Mockingbird"

The Film in Context

One cannot call into question the Kairos of the release of "To Kill a Mockingbird" in theaters. It was released near the end of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States on December 25, 1962. Just a year prior in May 1961, Alabama was brought to the front pages across America. First, a bus of young men and women were attacked in Birmingham for their intent to protest the harsh segregation and racism of the South (Southern Poverty Law Center). Just a week later, a church gathering was threatened and harassed while under the protection of Federal Marshals (BBC). "To Kill a Mockingbird" was not made in a vacuum. The deep racial divide in the south was becoming ever more clear in the early 1960's. While "To Kill a Mockingbird" can be viewed as a heartwarming film about a father and his two children, it is also important to recognize the film places an important emphasis on the racial tension in the small town in which the film takes place. It would not be unreasonable to extrapolate that "To Kill a Mockingbird" was produced and released in the early 1960's as a result of the Civil Rights Movement and on the side of promoting a society in which "All Men are Created Equal."

Figure 1: Freedom Riders Historical Commemoration Sign (Photo Credit: common.wikimedia.com)

Casting Choices

Three of the most important characters in the film adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird" are Atticus, "Jem," and "Scout" Finch. Jem and Scout were played by two newcomers from Birmingham, Alabama (McGee et al, TCM.com). While Monroeville is 160 miles away, having Alabama natives play two of the main characters in a story about the harsh racism of the south appears to be an intentional casting decision. It is also important to note the pick of Gregory Peck as the central role of the film, Atticus Finch. Gregory Peck was known for playing iconic roles and having a significant political role throughout his film career, including standing against the government and culture on thing such as the Second Red Scare under Senator McCarthy (McGee et al, TCM.com). It would not be a far stretch to have the iconic actor play a counter-cultural character, both on the screen and in real life.

The Courthouse

Figure 2: Side by side comparison from courtroom set in film and the Old Monroeville Courthouse

Director Robert Mulligan went to great lengths in connecting his visual representation of Harper Lee's classic to the reality of the Racist subculture of the South prior to and during the 1960's. Before Production began, a perfect reconstruction of the Monroeville Courthouse was built on a studio lot in order to provide an authentic image of the same Southern courthouse Harper Lee took inspiration from (McGee et al, TCM.com). On a basic level, one can interpret this meticulous accuracy as a director's duty to be as faithful to the source material as possible. However, another interpretation can be that Mulligan was intentionally creating a parallel between the fictional trial taking place in the work and the actual trials taking place in that court when the film was released. While the film takes place thematically in the 1930's, Mulligan implies that these problems that took place three decades before the film came out are still haunting the South in 1962 when the film released.

Setting the Scene

This scene takes place towards the end of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Tom Robinson, an african-american citizen, was accused of the rape and assault of Mayella Ewell, a white woman. A trial takes place, including the false testimony of several witnesses. Atticus Finch, a white lawyer and father to Jem and Scout, is representing Tom Robinson in court. This scene shows Atticus give his closing argument in the trial. Tom Robinson does receive a guilty verdict despite Atticus' plea, and Tom Robinson is killed in jail shortly afterwards.

Atticus' Verbal Defense

Atticus Finch's closing statements in the film make use of a plethora of rhetorical devices. First, I would like to point out the extreme use of Anaphora on Finch's behalf. When trying to explain the "truth" as he knows it, Atticus chooses to overuse the simple pronoun "she" to start his statements on multiple occasions rather than say the name of Mayella Ewell repeatedly. On a basic level for the scene, it appears Atticus is simply doing his best from directly connecting Mayella Ewell to the "offense" she committed for her sake. However, Atticus is also employing the technique as a way of drawing the actions of guilt from Tom Robinson in a way that will be memorable to the jury and the audience. This works towards the logos of Atticus' argument, while also establishing the ethos of Atticus as an intelligent lawyer and orator.

Atticus precedes his explanation of Mayella Ewell's actions by providing sympathy for the witness by stating, "I have nothing but pity in my heart for the Chief Witness of the State." On a surface level, it appears Atticus is either trying to soften the blow of what he is about to accuse Ms. Ewell of, or he is trying to show empathy and understanding for Ms. Ewell's actions. However, Atticus' wording is very methodical. Atticus is emulating the speech of Tom Robinson just scenes prior when he showed "pity" for Mayella. When Tom Robinson, an African American gentleman, showed pity for a white girl, he received tremendous backlash. Now, Atticus Finch is stating the same exact thing with no recourse. From the perspective of a viewer of the film, it is clear that the speech is meant to bring the viewer's mind back to the incident to point out the hypocritical racism occurring within the case. I believe that those words are meant to show definitively that this trial only took place because of the racism that permeated the South. If Atticus Finch did not mean it that way, I most certainly think Gregory Peck meant it that way. These build a strong pathetic appeal for both Atticus' argument and the argument presented by Mulligan, with both arguments in favor of treating african-americans with equality under the law.

Another interesting line delivered within the Closing Statements refers to exactly who Mayella Ewell kissed. Mayella Ewell kissed "not an old uncle, but a strong, young negro man." Atticus does two things within this statement: he compares incest with interracial relations and rationalizes Mayella Ewell's actions. Atticus does not draw the parallel of incest with the case of Mayella and Tom not to state that the later incident is just as bad as the former, but to highlight the ridiculous nature of the trial. Atticus is trying to show how an incident of incest is a crime, but loving someone who looks different from you shouldn't be. This works in tandem with Atticus' rationalization of Mayella's feelings for Tom by using the adjectives "strong" and "young" to describe him; two adjectives that would be considered ideal for a young woman's romantic partner. This furthers both the logos and pathos of the argument presented by Atticus and Mulligan, specifically that racism is hypocritical and unethical.

A Second Look

The cinematography and action of the scene accentuates the points Atticus makes during his closing statements. The most obvious example of this is with the use of a medium framed, mostly static shot of Atticus as he moves about the courtroom. Typically a shot such as this does not suggest anything special, but it can also be used to highlight the normality of a particular situation. In the case of this scene, the shot itself is highlighting how normal and obvious Atticus' points are regarding the injustice of the trial and the innocence of his client. The use of this shot was also meant to show how standing up to racism was not only becoming more prevalent around the time of the release of the film, but that Atticus' actions should be the standard. Atticus' movements within the scene also help to accentuate his point. When Atticus first speaks about Mayella Ewell and his pity for her, Atticus physically moves towards Mayella Ewell. When Atticus brings up Tom Robinson's name, Atticus stands next to him (Figure 3). These simple movements help remind the viewer which characters Atticus is referring to, while also giving the viewer a chance to see how that character reacts.

Figure 3: Atticus Finch standing next to Tom Robinson

When Atticus is talking about the equality of all men, the shot used is of the balcony of the courtroom. Everyone in the balcony, except for Jem and Scout, are african-american. They are shot from a low-angle, and a wide frame is used (Figure 4). A low-angle shot typically conveys some sense of power and importance, whereas a wide frame typically strips away individualization. I think Mulligan was trying to subvert the traditional use of the low-angle in this shot, instead trying to suggest that the african-american community needs to be lifted up (metaphorically) in the community by lifting them up (visually) in the scene. Mulligan was highlighting the sentiment that Atticus makes about equality by showing those who were not being treated equal at the time.

Figure 4: The Courtroom Balcony

The scene ends on a strange note, however. One of the final shots is a high-angle wide shot. This type of shot composition is typically used to denote defeat and hopelessness (Figure 5). This may have simply been used to foreshadow the guilty verdict of Tom Robinson later in the film. However, this shot may also be used to paint a more negative image of the social climate in 1962. Given the historical context of the film, it would not be a stretch for Mulligan to use this scene to suggest that trials like this occur at the same time of the film's release. These trials would have witnesses lie on the stand and oppress the african-american population. After all, Martin Luther King Jr. would be imprisoned in Birmingham Alabama only months after the film's theatrical release. All of these shots help bolster the pathos of both Atticus' arguments and the arguments of director Robert Mulligan.

Figure 5: Wide Courtroom Shot

Credits

"A Time for Justice - A Civil Rights Timeline." Teaching Tolerance - Diversity, Equity and Justice. Southern Poverty Law Center, n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

McGee, Scott, Kerryn Sherrod, and Jeff Stafford. "Behind the Camera on To Kill a Mockingbird." Turner Classic Movies. Turner Classic Movies, n.d. Web. 06 Apr. 2017.

To Kill a Mockingbird. Dir. Robert Mulligan. Perf. Gregory Peck. Universal Studios, 1962. Online.

"1961: Freedom Riders Spark Montgomery Riots." BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

Created By
Nicholas Taylor
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