To Kill a Mockingbird: Cinematic Exploration of Racial Injustice

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The 1960s marked a pivotal era characterized by radical social transformations and a revolutionary spirit. While this period witnessed numerous collective efforts to effect positive change in the United States, the issue of racism remained deeply ingrained in society, posing a formidable challenge to those advocating for a more egalitarian America. Amidst a backdrop of racial tension, films produced during this decade often grappled with how to address this contentious topic. Robert Mulligan's 1963 film adaptation of Harper Lee's 1960 novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," successfully navigated this delicate balance.

This essay examines why "To Kill a Mockingbird" stands out as one of the 1960s' most impactful films in addressing race relations. It accomplishes this by offering a nuanced portrayal of race relations and character motivations, exploring themes relevant to the era, and achieving cinematic excellence, distinguishing itself from its contemporaries.

Historical and Social Context

Despite being set nearly three decades prior to the 1960s, "To Kill a Mockingbird" remained a timely exploration of racism.

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It was among the pioneering films that shed light on racial issues without overwhelming audiences with discomfort. While the gravity of racial discrimination should have elicited more than mere discomfort, the film recognized that easing society into this conversation was a more effective approach than pushing them into the deep end. Shot in black and white, the film cleverly emphasized the stark nature of its characters.

As Barry Keith Grant notes in his textbook "American Cinema of the 1960s," "the characters in the film are quite literally black and white: drooling, prejudiced hayseeds or tolerant understanding souls.

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" This dichotomy served as a powerful tool to highlight the problematic stance of those who attempted to remain neutral in the face of racial injustice, categorizing them by default as prejudiced. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most prominent civil rights activists of the 1960s, drew inspiration from Dante Alighieri's work when addressing neutrality, stating, "The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict." He further emphasized, "He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it." For many years, some believed that remaining neutral was a morally sound choice, considering it better than aligning with the wrong side. However, "To Kill a Mockingbird" challenged this complacency, compelling audiences to reevaluate their stance on racial issues and decide where they truly stood. It urged people to take a stand and articulate their beliefs instead of blending into the anonymous crowd. MLK aptly encapsulated the unsettling reality of those who remained neutral, asserting, "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

Despite its considerable success, some critics expressed dissatisfaction with the film's portrayal of its Black characters. In a review by Roger Ebert, he voiced his concerns, stating, "The black people in this scene are not treated as characters, but as props, and kept entirely in long shot. The close-ups are reserved for the white hero and villain." While Ebert's observation holds true and does raise some valid concerns, it also accounts for the film's effectiveness in addressing racism. As previously mentioned, the film avoids the kind of shocking and confrontational scenes that might have made audiences uncomfortable enough to retreat into their blissful ignorance. In retrospect, it may seem that the film was too forgiving in its portrayal of racism, but it understood the prevailing caution within society and preserved the innocence of the early 1960s. The film pushed boundaries just enough to engage its audience and encourage them to take a stance in a manner that was comprehensible and acceptable. By presenting only two clear choices, it forced viewers to introspect and ask themselves whom they would stand up for: Mayella Ewell or Tom Robinson? What some critics failed to recognize, regarding the seemingly straightforward characters, were the undeniable parallels between audience members and the individuals portrayed in the film.

Characterization and Moral Ambiguity

Atticus Finch, a widowed and considerably affluent white lawyer, effortlessly captivated reluctant audiences by embodying the ideal father figure. His spirited daughter, Scout, exuded both lovability and endearment. Throughout the film, she formed her own opinions under the nurturing guidance of her accepting father. The equally charming Jem, whose full name is Jeremy, rounded out this picturesque yet unique family. The film's portrayal of the Finch family established an instant connection with the audience, intensifying its impact significantly. While it is regrettable that the white characters were portrayed as heroes while the black characters seemed relegated to the background, it is crucial to acknowledge that the prevailing societal attitudes of the time made it challenging to rally support for a Black hero. Charles Bukowski, a prominent American author, once aptly remarked, "I guess the only time people think about injustice is when it happens to them." By placing Atticus at the narrative's center, the film managed to weave a relatable story that allowed viewers to more easily envision themselves in his shoes.

This approach was particularly vital for individuals who had not personally experienced racism or lacked a personal connection that motivated them to advocate for change. "To Kill A Mockingbird's" subtle treatment of race relations is often contrasted with the 1962 film "The Intruder," which tackled the issue of race in a starkly different manner. While "To Kill A Mockingbird" exercised restraint in its condemnation of racism, "The Intruder" bore an unsettling resemblance to the events in Oxford, Mississippi, during the same year. James Meredith, a Black military veteran, sought admission to the University of Mississippi, also known as Ole Miss. Due to a previous court ruling in "Brown vs. The Board of Education," public schools were mandated to desegregate. President John F. Kennedy, a staunch advocate for civil rights, engaged in frequent discussions with Mississippi's Governor Ross Barnett, aiming to ensure Meredith's safety. However, the only assurance provided by the Governor was that he would keep the school segregated.

On September 29th, tensions escalated into a harrowing and violent riot at the university, resembling the climactic mob scene at the end of "The Intruder." This riot resulted in two civilian deaths and 70 injuries. The following day, James Meredith became the first African-American student to enroll at the university. The disconcerting parallels between "The Intruder" and real-life events underscored the film's honesty in portraying race relations. Nevertheless, "To Kill a Mockingbird" resonated with audiences nationwide and, albeit gently, pushed for renewed dialogues and actions concerning race relations in America. Although "To Kill A Mockingbird" is set in the 1930s, its themes remain relevant to 1960s audiences. The film not only reflects events that could easily be seen as representative of real occurrences but also offers commentary on the societal landscape of the 1960s.

Themes and Their Relevance

The film delves into the theme of innocence from multiple angles. It explores a child's naive perspective on the world and how easily it can be altered. Additionally, it highlights society's responsibility to safeguard innocence. "Loss of innocence" is a frequently employed theme in literature and cinema, whereas the "responsibility to protect the innocent" receives less attention but is equally significant. "To Kill A Mockingbird" effectively explores these themes through Scout's character. Initially, Scout appears oblivious to racism, setting her apart from the average child. She displays intelligence and compassion, underpinned by a strong moral compass instilled by her father, Atticus. Despite these admirable qualities, she still embodies the innocence associated with childhood. The Finch family employs a Black cook named Calpurnia, who, before the trial, serves as a bridge between their world and the Black community. Scout remains shielded from the injustices that Calpurnia presumably faces when she leaves the Finch home. Her awakening to the realities of racial injustice occurs when her father agrees to defend Tom Robinson, a Black man.

In the film, Atticus's defense of Tom Robinson imparts one of the most valuable lessons: the responsibility to protect the innocent. This lesson unfolds both within the courtroom and in the real world. Throughout Tom Robinson's trial, Jem's innocence and limited exposure to the surrounding racism lead him to believe that justice will prevail, regardless of the circumstances. Atticus's lucid and compelling arguments serve as a beacon of hope for the Black community and his son, Jem, who share his confidence in the impartiality of the courts. Atticus's final speech, one of the most renowned monologues in cinematic history, is an attempt to remind the jury that a courtroom should be colorblind and classless: "In this country, our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts, all men are created equal. I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system. That is no ideal to me...It is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty. In the name of God, believe Tom Robinson."

One would hope that Atticus's unwavering belief in the moral obligation to defend Tom Robinson and the imperative for an impartial justice system would resonate with audiences. Unfortunately, the reality of the 1960s was not markedly different from the 1930s portrayed in "To Kill A Mockingbird." Members of the civil rights movement in the 1960s had scant reasons to place their trust in the legal system and its courts. Just as the legal system failed Tom Robinson, it also failed Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary in 1963. Evers was shot in the head by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens' Council, in front of his home in Jackson, Mississippi. After being initially denied medical treatment due to his skin color, Evers passed away fifty minutes later. Beckwith was tried twice, and both juries, composed entirely of white males, failed to reach a verdict.

In the same year, in Birmingham, Alabama, Ku Klux Klan members bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, resulting in the deaths of four young Black girls and injuring twenty-two people. Once again, the legal system proved inadequate in protecting innocent lives. Robert Edward Chambliss, who was witnessed placing the bomb under the church steps, received only a 100-dollar fine and six months in jail. These tragic murders and the racist judicial systems portrayed in both the film and the real-world events served as a somber reminder that society had neglected its responsibility to safeguard the innocent. Both the film and the distressing national events prompted a reawakening of society's commitment to this responsibility. An editorial in The Milwaukee Sentinel on September 16th, 1963, stated, "For the rest of the nation, the Birmingham church bombing should serve to goad the conscience. The deaths... in a sense are on the hands of each of us."

In the film, Jem's spirit was crushed when prejudice and bigotry triumphed during Tom Robinson's trial. The moment the verdict was announced could be seen as the instant when Jem lost his innocence. He had been exposed to the unnatural hatred prevalent in his community, a sentiment directed at people he knew nothing about. The film delves into the theme of ignorance in the context of the loss of innocence. The community's perception of Tom Robinson mirrors the children's initial view of Boo Radley at the film's beginning. They fear him because they fail to comprehend him and ridicule him, believing their actions to be harmless. The children's realization that their mockery of Boo was wrong parallels the notion held by 1960s communities that their discrimination towards Black individuals was also harmless.

Scout learns that her actions towards Boo were misguided, gaining a valuable lesson about acceptance. When the narrator (an older Scout) states, "Boo was our neighbor," it appears inconsequential, but it adds another layer to the message of protecting the innocent. It serves as a reminder that often, those we discriminate against are members of our community, a compelling reason to extend kindness to them. Boo Radley and Tom Robinson symbolize anyone subjected to discrimination by individuals ignorant of the truth. The children's initial perception of Boo as a monstrous figure mirrors the town's outlook on Tom Robinson. Although Tom is not the film's central character, viewers can put themselves in his shoes and gain a deeper understanding of his perspective.

In the film's conclusion, Scout escorts Boo Radley home, standing on his porch and contemplating what life must look like from his perspective. The idea of "standing in someone else's shoes" is frequently suggested but less frequently practiced. By understanding Boo's life and showing compassion towards him, Scout accomplishes more than a majority of the adults in her community. "To Kill A Mockingbird" serves as an exemplary demonstration of how a film can evoke emotions and convey essential issues through its exploration of specific themes. The film masterfully evokes a sense of nostalgia by portraying childhood in a warm and comforting manner. The viewer is entranced by the portrayal of Scout and Jem's youth, perhaps even reminded of their own, which makes their loss of innocence all the more heartbreaking.

By the film's conclusion, both Scout and her brother have experienced a loss of innocence. Their optimistic view of a moral and fair world has been tarnished by their exposure to profound social injustices. The film's rare ability to be beloved by diverse audiences while presenting a harsh reality about racism in America is credited to its exceptional cinematic qualities. The film garnered eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and won three of them. It was recognized as "culturally significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Harper Lee, the author of the novel on which the film is based, expressed her approval of the film adaptation, considering it a "work of art."

This sentiment is shared by many for several compelling reasons. Among the film's most outstanding achievements is its acting. Gregory Peck's portrayal of Atticus Finch remains one of the most iconic in cinematic history. Peck eschewed his natural charm to wholly embody the paternal qualities of the character. He personified the dignity and intelligence Lee had crafted for Atticus in the novel, earning him an Academy Award for Best Actor in the process. The combination of the remarkable character that is Atticus with Peck's legendary performance undoubtedly inspired countless legal careers and continues to be held in high regard by those who value the practice of law. While Peck's performance is undeniably exceptional, the film was further elevated by three young actors.

Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, and John Megna breathed life into the characters of Scout, Jem, and Dill on the big screen. Their undeniable raw talent added a unique quality to the film, helping audiences forge deeper connections with the narrative. Their remarkable performances also stood as a testament to the director Robert Mulligan's expertise.

Artistic Elements and Cinematic Excellence

The black-and-white aesthetics of the film serve to enrich the narrative and contribute to its status as a work of art. Lighting plays a pivotal role in establishing the film's atmosphere and shaping the audience's perception. "To Kill A Mockingbird" employs soft lighting, evoking a sense of nostalgia that resonates deeply with viewers. The decision to use black and white cinematography is deeply intertwined with the story's thematic underpinnings. The absence of color directs the audience's focus toward the characters rather than the scenery. It also serves as a visual representation of the stark division between the two racial communities in the town, quite literally segregating them into "black and white."

The film's music and screenplay are two indispensable elements in its composition. Elmer Bernstein's score for the film is celebrated as one of the most classic film scores of the decade. It skillfully contributes to the film's theme of childhood nostalgia while subtly imbuing it with a haunting and unforgettable quality. The screenplay adaptation, penned by Horton Foote, was no small task, given that it involved transforming a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into a cinematic masterpiece. However, Foote had a personal connection to the story, having grown up in Wharton, Texas, during the 1920s.

The film's artistic achievements owe much to the contributions of the art directors and cinematographer. The director of photography, Russell Harlan, received an Academy Award nomination for his exceptional work on the film. Throughout the movie, Harlan employs point-of-view shots to powerful effect. One of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history is Atticus's final address to the jury during the Tom Robinson trial. Harlan's cinematography in this scene creates the illusion that Atticus is delivering his speech not only to the jury but also directly to the theater audience. While Atticus does not make direct eye contact with the camera, the camera angle makes it abundantly clear whom the speech is intended for.

This particular scene likely had its most profound impact in the southern United States, where the artistic execution combined with the content of the speech would have resonated deeply. Alexander Golitzen and Henry Bumstead, serving as art directors for the film, succeeded in crafting historically accurate and visually stunning representations of Alabama in 1932, all within the confines of Hollywood sets. The film's enduring ability to transcend generations and address issues of social injustice can be attributed to its cinematic brilliance. By not only entertaining audiences but also holding their attention through its visual excellence, "To Kill A Mockingbird" was able to stir people emotionally and motivate them to take action.

The 1960s constituted a decade marked by unceasing social change, with the Civil Rights movement in full swing when "To Kill A Mockingbird" made its debut.


In conclusion, "To Kill A Mockingbird," both as a novel by Harper Lee and its cinematic adaptation by Robert Mulligan, stands as a timeless and powerful exploration of the complexities of racial prejudice and social injustice. Set against the backdrop of the racially charged American South in the 1930s, the story remains strikingly relevant, resonating with audiences across generations. It is a testament to the enduring power of literature and film to shed light on society's darkest corners and inspire change.

The film's ability to navigate the sensitive issue of race relations in the 1960s with a balance of clarity and nuance is a testament to its enduring impact. By presenting a stark contrast between right and wrong, "To Kill A Mockingbird" challenged viewers to confront their own beliefs and take a stance against injustice. Its portrayal of characters who embodied both the worst and best of humanity served as a reflection of the choices individuals faced during a tumultuous period in American history.

The film's success can be attributed to its outstanding cinematic qualities, from the masterful acting of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch to the evocative black-and-white cinematography that captured the era's essence. Elmer Bernstein's iconic score and Horton Foote's skillful screenplay adaptation further enhanced its emotional resonance.

Ultimately, "To Kill A Mockingbird" remains a timeless masterpiece that transcends its origins in both literature and film. It has sparked discussions on race, morality, and social responsibility for decades and continues to serve as a source of inspiration for those who seek justice and equality. As we reflect on the enduring relevance of this powerful narrative, we are reminded of the enduring capacity of art to challenge our perceptions, stir our emotions, and motivate us to strive for a more just and equitable society.

Updated: Nov 08, 2023
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To Kill a Mockingbird: Cinematic Exploration of Racial Injustice. (2016, Sep 11). Retrieved from

To Kill a Mockingbird: Cinematic Exploration of Racial Injustice essay
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