This past weekend I was privileged to see Aaron Sorkin’s theatrical adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” on Broadway.
Author Harper Lee’s “Mockingbird” is an icon of American literature. Most of us read it in high school and saw the movie starring Gregory Peck in the lead role of Atticus Finch.
The novel takes place in a small town in Alabama in 1934 during the Depression. An African American man named Tom Robinson is falsely accused of raping a young white woman, who was actually being abused by her own father. The father is a vile and violent racist who not only attacks his own daughter but tries unsuccessfully to murder the defendant, as well as the children of Atticus Finch.
Finch, a small-town lawyer with negligible criminal law experience, reluctantly agrees to defend Robinson once he understands that an innocent man is being falsely accused. Despite the lack of evidence on which a conviction could be based, as well as the existence of exculpatory evidence that should have exonerated the defendant, Robinson is tried and convicted of rape by an all-white jury. It’s a clear-cut travesty of justice that was all too common in the South in the 1930s.
But the story line is more nuanced than it appears. Finch, who in many respects seems heroic in his representation of Robinson, often comes across as too understanding and respectful of his neighbors who exhibit racist views. He demands that his feisty and questioning young children be more tolerant of the townspeople in spite of their racism in the spirit of decency and understanding. But his children aren’t buying it, and neither is their African American maid, Calpurnia, who also helps raise the children (Finch is a widower).
What are the limits of decency and respect for one’s neighbors and community members when they harbor racist views and engage in cruel and even violent behavior? It’s a theme that Sorkin circles back to repeatedly. And what are the limits of the law to provide a just resolution, and when does morality and doing the right thing trump strict legal process? And, finally, how much progress have we made as a nation in moving beyond racial stereotypes? What should our response be to the frustrations of working-class white people who feel left behind and resentful toward educated affluent elites who they perceive to be condescending and judgmental?
There’s a really powerful dialogue between Finch and Calpurnia that seems to sum up Sorkin’s question about decency and respect. Calpurnia was chastising Finch for criticizing his children’s oppositional behavior toward the racist townsfolk.
Finch: “I believe in being respectful.”
Calpurnia: “No matter who you’re disrespecting by doing it?”
It was a breathtaking moment.
As Rosh Hashanah approaches, the issues raised by this play are worth pondering: Must we insist on civility and decency as absolute values? Are there times when we need to fight back against evil and call it out for what it is? And how should we determine what actions are called for in which situations? Even when we are not sure what the right course of action is, Sorkin has one of the characters state that, “Just trying to do the right thing is the right thing to do,” or words to that effect.
Finch sometimes came across as overly decent, kind and even passive and naive in the eyes of his two children. They implore him to show more moral outrage and fight, despite the huge amount of courage it already took for him as defense counsel. His children come to appreciate his approach—clearly, he was trying to do the right thing—but also challenge him to look further inward.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a beautiful and authentic tale of parenting, in addition to being a tragic story of racial prejudice. Yet despite the galling injustice of Robinson’s fate, the story ends on a somewhat optimistic note of rough justice and promise of hope and change in the upcoming generation. It seems Finch’s children will carry on their father’s legacy, and then some.
I can’t think of a better way to end Elul. I plan to reread “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a novel that’s filled with both despair and hope. It contains much wisdom and poses universal questions about human nature, right and wrong, social justice and transmitting values to the next generation.
The courtroom scene in Sorkin’s script begins with the bailiff’s traditional call, “All rise,” as the judge enters. The play ends with the call to all of us once again to “rise.” Like the clarion sound of the shofar, this plaintive call to rise up becomes a metaphor for striving to achieve our better selves in a broken world. There is likewise a reference in the play to the following passage in the Book of Psalms: “Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.”
A lot of tears are shed in “Mockingbird,” but the promise of redemption and even joy are embedded in the tale as well.
Thank you to the late Harper Lee for her inspiration, and Sorkin for his brilliant contemporary interpretation of this powerful novel—so much to contemplate on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.
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