5 January 2012

Prejudice, and Harper Lee's and Robert Mulligan's To Kill a Mockingbird

Over the holidays I chanced upon the DVD of To Kill a Mockingbird, and although I'd seen the movie before and read the book two or three times, as it's always been a favorite of mine I decided to buy it. At the time I didn't realize that the main theme of the narrative – the obscenity of prejudice – would prove to be so topical this week, when two Englishmen were finally found guilty of a horrific racially motivated murder commited almost two decades previously.

We have fictional, smalltown Maycomb (loosely modeled on Monroeville), Alabama in the Jim Crow era of the early 1930s, and real Eltham, suburb of bigtown London, UK, in the early 1990s. Ostensibly, there are huge differences in time, general culture, etc, and yet I don't see much difference between the poison of Bob Ewell and the poison of Gary Dobson and David Norris.

Disturbingly, Norris, who lived in a £300,000 mansion and whose family had never been short of money in his sixteen years, had rarely left south-east London, and had never been north of the River Thames. Insularity breeds contempt.

To return to Mockingbird, there is of course a parallel narrative that feeds into that of Tom Robinson's toward the end, and just as Robinson is the outsider in the powerful white world of the South, Boo Radley with, to quote Sheriff Heck Tate, 'his shy ways' is very much the white outsider in a more extroverted world he can't fit into.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the great novels of 20th century American literature, and the movie – strongly endorsed by Lee – also has a power which, as director Robert Mulligan suggests, it would not have been possible to display in a world fed on MTV, in which many people would be easily bored by the long scenes.

Mulligan made that remark during the Director's Commentary, a special feature on the DVD where he and producer Alan J. Pakula discuss the actors and the events in the film. What I hadn't considered before is that the movie (which in spite of a number of small differences is largely very faithful to the book) is a real oddity as the book is essentially uncinematic, and apart from the courtroom scene the major events take place offstage and we learn of them (the killing of the black Tom Robinson, the killing of of the crazed racist Ewell) secondhand.

Pakula would go on to direct his own films, and a preoccupation with technology is apparent in virtually all of them. This is particularly so with his characters' use of the phone, which is frequently employed as a dramatic device to increase tension, often being the harbinger of important news. But perhaps the Pakula movie that springs to mind most is All the President's Men, with the Watergate tapes which proved so damning to Nixon. Significantly, of course, it was technology in the form of the police bugging of Dobson's flat that helped in bringing (as yet just two of) the murderers of Stephen Lawrence to justice. Technology was a little too primitive in the days when Mockingbird is set, although the insane primitiveness of racial prejudice is still with us.

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