Something odd happens after Gregory Peck delivers one of cinema’s most celebrated courtroom orations as attorney Atticus Finch in the 1962 film adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The wrongful conviction of his client, a black man named Tom Robinson accused of raping a white woman, unfolds as an afterthought.
When the trial’s white audience files out, the black observers in the balcony remain, not to express anger or grief, or to confer about how to help Robinson’s wife and children, but to honor Atticus by rising silently from their seats.
“Miss Jean Louise, stand up, your father’s passin’,” an admiring black minister tells Atticus’ daughter, Scout. The minister’s focus — and the camera’s — is on Atticus, not Tom.
Fifty-three years later, for many fans of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book and perhaps even more so the Oscar-winning movie, Atticus is still the focus. The American Film Institute named Atticus Finch the top movie hero of the 20th century, surpassing Han Solo and James Bond; cultural figures as influential as Oprah Winfrey and Tom Brokaw praised him, and generations of lawyers, teachers and parents took inspiration from him.
Which is why the publication this week of the novel “Go Set a Watchman,” in which “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee depicts Atticus as a staunch segregationist who attended a meeting of white supremacists, hits hard. If Atticus is a racist in the newly published novel, which Lee wrote in the 1950s before she wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird,” what else might be true about him — and us?
“It’s upsetting to a lot of readers, but, well, welcome to 20th century America,” Charles J. Shields, author of the biography “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee,” said in an interview Tuesday. “One problem with Atticus Finch in the movie is that there’s so much moral certitude there ... he is an ideal, a paragon.”
For some audiences, however, Atticus has always been a fantasy, among the first of a durable cinematic character we’ve come to know well: the white savior. It’s a hero type that shows up in far more recent movies as popular and critically praised as “The Blind Side,” “The Help” and “Dances With Wolves,” in which a white character rescues people of color from their plight.
To see Atticus portrayed as reflecting the racism that might be expected of a white Southern man in the first half of the 20th century is to acknowledge realities that those narratives rarely do.
“Now that Atticus Finch has been removed from that pedestal of this benevolent, messianic character, people seem to be reacting as if they’ve been told, ‘No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus,’” said Matthew W. Hughey, associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and author of the book “The White Savior Film.” “But a lot of critical social scientists or literary scholars aren’t upset, because we already saw white supremacy and white paternalism in the form of Atticus Finch. It was just the palatable kind.”
Of course, for many movie lovers, the character of Atticus Finch has become indelibly intertwined with Peck’s Oscar-winning performance in the film directed by Robert Mulligan from a screenplay by Horton Foote, which reflected the actor’s own deeply felt beliefs about race. Peck, a vocal liberal who also produced the movie, was seen as a strong, handsome example of white virtue in a confusing time of racial upheaval in America. According to Shields, in the editing room, Peck pressed the director to focus the movie more on Atticus’ heroism and less on the other characters in the novel.
“‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was among the first of a trope that we would see happen over and over in Hollywood,” said writer Phenderson Clark. “There often needs to be this white figure who somehow can connect with majority white audiences and navigate and push along the story line. We live with the ghost of Atticus Finch.”
That ghost surfaces in movies that many people — including critics and film academy members — adore, but others increasingly find patronizing. The release of 2011’s “The Help” was met with both praise and disdain for Emma Stone’s character, a young writer who provides a vehicle for African American maids played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer to tell their stories. With 2009’s “The Blind Side,” there were similar rumblings — and an Oscar win for Sandra Bullock — after her portrayal of a woman who adopts an African American youth played by Quinton Aaron, enabling him to surmount poverty and ultimately achieve the dream of playing in the NFL.
In “Glory,” the 1989 movie about the first all-black Civil War regiment, top billing went to a white actor, Matthew Broderick, who played regiment leader Col. Robert Gould Shaw. But the racist beliefs that the real-life Shaw espoused in his personal letters — including describing his regiment as childlike and worrying that they would embarrass him — did not show up in the screenplay.
“I love ‘Glory,’” Clark said. “But the movie would have you believe that Robert Gould Shaw is this white man plopped into the middle of the 1860s without a racist belief. In order to create the white savior, all of these stories have to be changed.”
Historically, some studios have encouraged black filmmakers to add white heroic characters to their movies, even when to do so would be nonsensical. When Mario and Melvin Van Peebles sought financing for their 1995 movie about the Black Panther movement, “Panther,” a studio head suggested the filmmakers make one of the leading panthers a white man to lend the picture more mainstream appeal; other potential financiers, Mario said in an interview with Tikkun magazine, “suggested focusing on a Berkeley white person who would meet five young black guys, teach them to read and stand up for themselves.”
In other cases, a black director downplaying the role of a white character has provoked controversy. When “Selma,” Ava DuVernay’s movie about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., arrived in theaters late last year, some historians and critics took issue with her portrayal of Lyndon Johnson as a straggler in the effort for black voting rights, rather than a leader in it.
DuVernay responded with a Twitter post, saying that the “notion that Selma was LBJ’s idea is jaw dropping and offensive to... black citizens who made it so.”
Film portrayals of race, like those in movies from “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “Selma,” matter in particular in an era when the country is still largely segregated, in its housing, schools and churches, Hughey said.
“In lieu of actual lived contact with other races, film becomes the blueprint for how we believe the world is,” Hughey said.
As “To Kill a Mockingbird” was arriving in theaters in Alabama in early 1963, Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor was directing the use of fire hoses and police dogs on civil rights activists.
“White people were coming out of the theater feeling good about Atticus and... blocks away you had black children’s bodies skidding in the streets,” Shields said. “When you challenge some people, their attitude is, ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts.’”