Lights, Camera, Atticus!
The American Film Institute and the American Bar Association have each called Robert Mulligan’s film adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird the best trial movie ever made. Its courtroom scenes and the character of defense attorney Atticus Finch, played with both tenderness and ferocity by Gregory Peck, have cast a long shadow on American cinema and television. This map cross-examines some of the film’s closest relations.
To Kill a Mockingbird and Anatomy of a Murder dramatize the trials of alleged rapists accused by sexually aggressive women. Deep-seated anxiety about female sexuality seems to underlie both plots. In Mockingbird, not only has Tom Robinson not raped Mayella Ewell, she attacked him. She “sorta jumped on me…hugged me round the waist…an’ kissed me ’side of th’ face,” Tom tells the horrified courtroom. Mayella comes across as lascivious and desperate; she may even have planned her rendezvous with Tom. Though Tom’s lawyer, Atticus Finch, allows that Mayella may be a victim of her poor upbringing—and have been habitually assaulted by her father—he does everything he can to cast her as the aggressor.
Likewise, the alleged rape victim in Anatomy, Laura Manion, is the film’s least trustworthy character, depicted as so oversexed she practically slinks across the screen. When she first appears in lawyer Paul Biegler’s office, she all but reclines on his couch, as if making an amorous social call instead of seeking a lawyer for her husband, who awaits trial for the murder of the man accused of raping her. The film never reveals whether she was raped, but her passion is portrayed as clearly dangerous.
To Kill a Mockingbird is set during the restrictive Jim Crow era, when black Americans were rarely allowed to serve on southern juries. Black defendants were thus seldom tried by a jury of their true peers, an injustice depicted in the film’s rape trial of a black man with a racist all-white jury. Though the U.S. Supreme Court in 1935 outlawed the systematic exclusion of blacks from juries, the practice remained widespread into the 1960s and continues to some extent today. This situation drives A Time to Kill, in which a black man’s 10-year-old daughter has been raped and left for dead by two white men. The father (Samuel L. Jackson) believes the attackers will surely escape punishment; exacting revenge, he is soon on trial for their murder before another all-white jury. Plenty of African Americans are on the roster, but the prosecutor excuses them via peremptory challenges. In 1986 the Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors cannot excuse jurors based on race alone. The film’s setting does not clearly predate this decision, but the circumstances in the courtroom are nonetheless grim. “That’s a jury of my peers?” the defendant despairs as he looks up at 12 white faces.
In Anatomy of a Murder, Paul Biegler’s practice is nigh-insolvent when he agrees to defend a young soldier accused of murdering his wife’s rapist. In A Time to Kill, based on the John Grisham novel, another down-on-his-luck lawyer, Jake Brigance, represents a black man, Carl Lee Hailey, accused of murdering two white men who raped his daughter. Both lawyers also employ a sarcastic older secretary and are mentored by hard-drinking men with diminished reputations. Both defendants plead innocent by reason of insanity, yet they were indeed sane when committing their crimes.
The films portray the jury system differently. The defense in A Time to Kill doesn’t try to prove Hailey’s innocence; he took the law into his own hands. Brigance instead appeals to the jurors’ empathy so they will essentially take the law into their own hands. With almost no legal basis, they find Hailey not guilty. This jury isn’t a guardian of justice but an obstacle to it. Compare that attitude with this speech from Anatomy: “Twelve people go off into a room. Twelve different minds, 12 different hearts, from 12 different walks of life.” Somehow they generally reach the right consensus. Hailey would have rolled his eyes.
Starring Gregory Peck (Spellbound, Roman Holiday) as upright defense lawyer Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird won Academy Awards for best actor, best art direction and best adapted screenplay. The film inspired the 1990s TV drama I’ll Fly Away. Set in the South during the racially tumultuous 1950s and ’60s, it focuses on a district attorney’s black housekeeper, Lilly Harper (her name an homage to Mockingbird novelist Harper Lee), who was based on Calpurnia, Atticus’s housekeeper. The show’s creators felt Calpurnia’s perspective was lacking from Lee’s story and sought to rectify that.
Sam Waterston played the district attorney in I’ll Fly Away and went on to play another one on Law & Order. Like Mockingbird, Law & Order packs most of its punch in taut courtroom scenes, through antagonistic cross-examinations and melodramatic closing statements. One could argue that Mockingbird cast the mold for this style of courtroom drama—and that omnipresent Law & Order has repeated the model so often that most television viewers now assume real courtrooms function like their fictional counterparts.
Sling Blade often reads as a Mockingbird remake, but while both feature a murderous male pariah, the latter film’s little girl narrator provides only glimpses into his world. In Sling Blade, we see the world from the outcast’s perspective and escape no brutal facts. As if to acknowledge the shift, Robert Duvall, who plays Mockingbird’s recluse, Boo Radley, is cast in Sling Blade as the abusive father of mentally ill outcast Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton).
In the older film, children keep trinkets—crayons, a pocket watch, marbles—inside a cigar box displayed in a nostalgic opening sequence. In Thornton’s film, this idealized childhood symbol is replaced with a shoebox that holds Karl’s aborted baby brother—a clue to the horrors of his past. Mockingbird dispels its more Gothic aspects: A rabid dog is easily dispatched, and monstrous Boo is revealed to be shy and kindhearted. By contrast, Sling Blade dwells on darkness and tragedy. To save his young friend from an abusive adult, Karl must commit a horrific crime and suffer the consequences. Boo also kills, but we’re aware of it only afterward; in Sling Blade, we see Karl raise his murder weapon and hear its sickening impact.