Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tennessee Williams Festival: Breakfast Book Club - To Kill A Mockingbird

My favorite event of the whole Tennessee Williams Festival was the Breakfast Book Club on Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, held at Muriel's Jackson Square Restaurant. The discussion was led by Barton Palmer, author of To Kill a Mockingbird: From Page to Screen. I was very impressed with Barton Palmer and bought his book.

Breakfast consisted of breakfast pastries and breads with coffee, tea, or juice. Below are some highlights of the discussion. To Kill a Mockingbird is extremely rich, so this hardly scratches the surface of what can be said.

THE CATHOLIC LEGION OF DECENCY. The Catholic Legion of Decency was an organization of Catholic lay people who were concerned about the growing amount of violence, sex, and immorality in movies. From the 1920s to the 1960s, the Legion of Decency rated movies as A (okay for all ages), B (okay for adults only), and C (not okay for anyone). I remember the Legion of Decency ratings quite well. My mother strictly consulted these ratings for any movie we wanted to see and allowed us to watch only A movies.

Anyway, everyone expected To Kill a Mockingbird to receive an A rating, but in fact it received a B. This wouldn't do. Gregory Peck had put a great deal of money into the movie and really needed it to succeed.

Well, it turns out that the Legion of Decency was bothered by the scene near the end of the movie where Atticus Finch asks his eight-year-old daughter, Scout, to agree with the decision that he and Sheriff Heck Tate have made not to let anyone know of Boo Radley's role in the killing of the dangerous Bob Ewell but to state that Bob Ewell fell on his own knife and died. Although this is not true, it does seem the right thing to do to avoid hurting innocent people. Nonetheless, the Legion of Decency felt that asking Scout to agree to this story suggested that it is okay to ask a child to lie. Hence, the B rating.

To get an A rating, the movie was actually changed. Instead of showing Scout agreeing to her father and Sheriff Heck Tate's false story, the movie was changed to show Atticus and Scout talking together without any sound, so that the audience doesn't hear what they are saying. I don't remember this about the movie. I'll have to notice this the next time I watch it.

In the end, To Kill a Mockingbird, with the changed scene, received an A rating, and Gregory Peck made the money he needed to make from the film.

THE EDITOR'S CHANGES. When Harper Lee first approached her editor with To Kill a Mockingbird, she intended the novel to be only what is now Part I - a portrait of life in small-town Alabama. The editor said that the book needed a moving drama, so Harper Lee wrote Part II about the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man, for the rape of Mayella Ewell, a white woman. Lee even managed to bring Boo Radley into Part II at the end.

GRADUALISM. Atticus Finch and others in Maycomb, Alabama, like Judge Taylor and Miss Maudie, espoused a view of gradualism with regard to the injustice of racial discrimination. Gradualism means working for gradual change toward full rights for black citizens and trusting that this will come to pass over time.

Atticus also believes that, despite the racism in the larger society, the most important thing for an individual to do is to treat black people well himself or herself. When Atticus explains this view to his twelve-year-old son, Jem, his son doesn't seem satisfied. For Jem, doing the right thing as an individual probably won't be enough. Jem will probably feel the need to work more publicly for social change.

It was also pointed out that Atticus bows to tradition during Tom Robinson's trial by not cross-examining Mayella Ewell, as she is a white woman. Cross-examination would have laid bare the many holes in Mayella's and her father's stories (which seem fairly obvious anyway), but Atticus doesn't do this.

SEX AND RACE. One reason that To Kill a Mockingbird is so powerful is that Harper Lee had the courage to go straight to the heart of racial prejudice - sex. Tom Robinson is accused of having had sex with a white woman. This was something that prejudiced white people simply couldn't abide. The idea of a black man having sex with a white woman - and producing mixed-race children - was an abomination to them.

The odd thing is that sex between the races was happening all the time. White men frequently had sex with black women. Some had sex with their slaves. Some had black, or octaroon, mistresses whom they supported in style. There was a lot of mixed-race sex going on - and it was producing mixed-race children. But when powerful white men did this with the black women of their desire, no one complained - as along as these white men didn't actually marry the black women. Mixed-race marriage was forbidden by law. But mixed-race rape of one's slave was not, nor was having a mixed-race relationship with a mistress.

So there were contradictory views and practices about mixed-race sex. If you ask me, mixed-race marriage is a good thing. It breaks down the us-versus-them mentality by making blacks and whites part of one family where everyone is us.

No comments:

Post a Comment