Are Mockingbird book, movie classic works or racially paternalistic?

Are Harper Lee's novel and the film classic, paternalistic, both or neither?

We covered a remarkably wide range of topics during a lovely dinner with Amina Chaudhri and Lourdes Torres at Alan and Suzanne Saposnik’s home last Saturday night.

Among the big ones: the challenges of caring for sick and aging parents; the BP oil spill; and the obstacles to improving the Chicago Public Schools.

The subjects weren’t all dark, though. We also talked about an upcoming production at the Steppenwolf Theater of Harper Lee’s classic and only novel,  To Kill a Mockingbird.

The work needs little introduction and has been both thoroughly discussed and widely read.   In addition to talking about Truman Capote’s perpetual coyness about the role he played in the book’s creation, we also agreed that Mockingbird is one of the few films that approach, or even do, match the book’s quality.

Again, I know many of you have seen Gregory Peck’s shooting of the rabid dog, much to the surprise of his children,  his closing statement to try in vain to save accused rapist Tom Robinson, and Boo Radley’s saving of Scout from harm.

People the country and world over, including President Obama, have quoted Atticus Finch’s injunction to not judge a man until you have had a chance to walk a mile in his shoes.

Finch is one of a long line of sometimes saintly white protagonists in books and on the screen-enter A Time to Kill, Dangerous Minds, Finding Forrester, Glory and Freedom Writers, to name just a few-who work with, and ultimately help save, people of color.

This theme is not limited to white people and others of different races in the United States.  In a different way, Schindler’s List tells the story of the coming to conscience and then subversive action of a member of the dominant group through the witnessing of suffering and a close relationship with an articulate member of the oppressed group (In Schindler’s List, Ben Kingsley plays Stern.).

What do you think?  Is Mockingbird a classic and/or an example of racial paternalism?  Will any Chicagoans attend the Steppenwolf performance?

Inquiring minds want to know.


2 responses to “Are Mockingbird book, movie classic works or racially paternalistic?

  1. Inspired by our dinner conversation, I went out and bought Mockingbird and took it to Mexico, where I read it in a day.

    My response to your questions: Yes, yes, and yes!

    Mockingbird is a classic because of Lee’s brilliant writing. It will endure because it treats the subject of racism in a way the does not make white people uncomfortable. In other words, it is a classic because of the racial paternalism. The Ewells are easy to despise because they are not Every Man/Person. They live on the margins of society and their characterization does not invite the reader to look inward and examine one’s own prejudices. The same with the Cunninghams, who are treated with a little more tenderness. Sheriff Tate is also racist, and an upstanding member of Maycomb, but his racism is glossed over. And then there’s the Aunt and her gaggle of missionary Ladies…

    Which brings me to the topic of the female characters. Taken together, they represent a very diverse range of attitudes and demeanors. Maybe more so than the male characters. I think Lee was something of a radical feminist for her times – but that’s a topic for our next dinner discussion!

    I can’t wait for the play. We should all go together.

    LT and I have a book recommendation: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Amina! I’m glad to hear that you had a fabulous trip and enjoyed your analysis.

      Let’s get together soon, and thanks for the tip.


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