Essay: Narrative Criticism to Kill a Mockingbird Movie Transcript

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¶ … Kill a Mockingbird

The 1962 film to Kill a Mockingbird offers an ideal artifact for narrative and rhetorical criticism, because so much of the film's meaning is found in the dialogue and narration. Adapted from Harper Lee's 1960 novel of the same name, to Kill a Mockingbird follows the story of Jean Louise "Scout" Finch (Mary Badham), her brother Jem (Phillip Alford), and their father Atticus (Gregory Peck), as they confront the racism and bigotry that comes to light during the trial of a black man accused of raping a white teenage girl in the 1930s. The film contains a number of interesting speeches that, when analyzed in the context of rhetorical criticism, can shed light on the unique role of rhetoric in film, especially as it pertains to the use of visual details (something which has not been a major object of study in rhetorical theory until relatively recently). In particular, examining Scout's address to Mr. Cunningham, a member of a mob intent on lynching the accused man, Tom Robinson, and Atticus' defense of Tom reveals how the film uses both major and minor events, otherwise known as kernels and satellites, in order to achieve its objective aim, which is to uncover and critique the underlying emotions and behaviors that contribute to racism, bigotry, and mob violence, as well as to demonstrate the diminishing efficacy of traditional interpretations of rhetoric (Rhetorical Criticism 342).

Though a richly textured work, the objective of to Kill a Mockingbird is readily evident if one gives the narrative even a cursory consideration, because this objective is reiterated throughout, both in the central plot of the trial and its aftermath, and in Scout and Jem's interactions with Boo Radley, the town recluse. Both plots focus on the detrimental effects that ill-informed assumptions have not only on the victims of those assumptions, but also the individuals who hold them, and serve to achieve the film's objective by implicitly and explicitly revealing the underlying emotions and behaviors that precipitate and perpetuate these assumptions. Furthermore, the different rhetoric modes employed by Scout and Atticus serve to demonstrate how the traditional forms of rhetoric, embodied by Atticus, are nearly useless in the face of an illogical, immoral mob. In order to better understand just how explicit the film's objective is, it will be helpful to consider its immediate historical context as well as the resonance it retains for contemporary society.

One cannot consider to Kill a Mockingbird outside the context of the American Civil Rights movement, because by 1962, many of the key milestones in the movement had already occurred; 1954 saw the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that marked the official (though not actual) end to segregation in public schools, in 1955 Rosa Parks' decision to stay in her seat kicked of the Montgomery bus boycott, and in 1960, the same year of the novel's publication and two years before the film, the Freedom Riders risked life and limb to test the Supreme Court decision ordering the end of segregation on interstate buses. Two years after the film's release, in 1964, the United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, officially ending segregation in a number of public institutions and "accommodations" including hotels and restaurants. Though the film has been criticized for centralizing the white family's story at the expense of the black characters and thus offering white viewers "the opportunity to stand in the shoes not of an individual African-American person/character, but of the African-American "race" itself, thereby leaving intact notions of race as a legible sign of essential grouping 'difference,'" the fact remains that the story of a white man defending an unjustly accused black man in the American South touched upon many of the most contentious cultural and political issues of its time (Watson 420-421).

In fact, while one may accept Watson and others' argument that "the film operates as a message for white, politically moderate audiences," this does not necessarily undercut the importance of the film in regards to the Civil Rights movement, because in many instances, such as the Freedom Rides, white supporters of black civil rights were singled out for extra harassment due to the perceived racial betrayal they were committing (Watson 420, Holcomb 35). This should not be taken as an attempt to present a kind of equivalence between the difficulties faced by white supporters of black civil rights and the centuries-long oppression of blacks in America and elsewhere, but rather a recognition even if to Kill a Mockingbird is intended for a primarily white audience, the story at least attempts to dramatize and sympathize white supporters of black civil rights, and in doing so, takes clear position in the ongoing political and cultural discourse of its time. Thus, while the film may present "a visual experience of an American progressive compromise in which "white" can empathetically know "black" without weakening a racial ideology that depends upon maintaining an essential, impenetrable difference between the two," it nevertheless served as "a political act, which, ideally, made the spectators more receptive to civil rights reforms or, at least, more racially tolerant" (Nickels 31 qtd. In Watson 421).

Despite the film's somewhat problematic relationship with racial ideology, it retains a deep resonance to this day due to the way it investigates the underlying, almost primal cognitive and behavioral tendencies that ultimately lead to racism, bigotry, and mob violence (regardless of whether that mob is a literal mob or jury, as in the film, or a mob of physically distant yet like-minded individuals). While the ostensible subject of the film is racial injustice, the statements it makes about the way people think and behave are relevant today because while the specific issues may have changed, human behavior and thought has not evolved substantially in the subsequent fifty years. As will be seen, the rhetorical devices employed by both Scout and Atticus apply to contemporary discussions regarding the rights of gays and lesbians, Muslims, and, despite the successes of the Civil Rights movement and the election of the America's black president, African-Americans, because although the specific context of their rhetoric is focused around racial divides, the emotions and behaviors that they target are common to all forms of bigotry and discrimination. Thus, the central question this study seeks to answer does not relate specifically to the racial discourses of the film, but rather is concerned with the way in which the film addresses more fundamental concerns of human interaction and socialization, and how it uses rhetoric ostensibly focused on specific narrative events to confront more general problems.

The film takes place in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the 1930s, which is loosely based on Harper Lee's own hometown of Monroeville. The story is narrated in the past tense by an older Scout Finch, and begins with the older Scout describing Maycomb as "a tired old town, even in 1932" (Foote 3). However, the older Scout plays a relatively minor role, as the films backgrounds her narration in favor of directly showing events, thus transferring the narrator's usual "degree of authority" from the older Scout to the younger version seen throughout the film (Grindon 262). Though the exact size of the town is never made explicit, it is clear that it is relatively small, or at least small enough that the majority of the characters know each other. Though set specifically in Alabama, in many ways Maycomb serves as the kind of idealized small town common in American fiction, like Bedford Falls in it's a Wonderful Life or Grover's Corners in Our Town. Although both those stories occur in the American Northeast, the fact remains that the film's representation of Maycomb, though including decidedly Southern details such as the fact that the heat made "men's stiff collars [wilt] by nine in the morning," presents itself as a kind of Anytown, USA, and even opens with a man delivering newspapers to people's front porches, a common signifier of small-town or suburban mundanity (Foote 3). This initial treatment of the setting serves the film's larger objective by generalizing the events to come, such that the deeper meaning of the film transcends the geographically specific limits of Maycomb itself.

As mentioned above, the story mainly concerns itself with Scout Finch, her bother Jem, and their father Atticus, although there are other relatively minor characters that serve important functions in the overall narrative. Although the story is told by Scout and thus centralizes her perspective (and thus Jem's as well, as they are rarely apart from each other), one cannot effectively consider the characters of Scout or Jem without first addressing Atticus, because it is clear that both Scout and Jem take their cues from Atticus' example. Although seemingly trivial, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Atticus is the fact that he has his children call him by first name, rather than any of the traditional epithets for a father. In itself this is already a relatively progressive position, because it implicitly reconfigures… [END OF PREVIEW]

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