“But that shouldn’t happen”


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By Bobby Neal Winters

I was born in 1962, the same year the film To Kill a Mockingbird was made. When I was a boy, I sat on the floor of our living room and watched it on our black and white television at my father’s feet. At that time colored televisions were things that other people owned, but for this particular movie, it didn’t matter because it was shot in black and white. Some find the movie to be too “black and white” in the sense that the good characters are too good, and the bad characters are too bad. I am not sure that can be supported, but in any case creating moral ambiguity is not the point of this film, creating moral clarity is.

My father did not watch television as a rule, and when he did, we watched whatever he wanted to watch. There was a reason he wanted us to see To Kill a Mockingbird, and I believe that it was to learn about the evil of racism. This was something that we began to learn about in my family at a quite young age. Uncle Frank, one of my mother’s uncles, was from Alabama. While not a poster-child for political correctness by any means, he did have a native sense of justice. He once told a story of riding in the wagon that his father was driving when they met a black man coming from the other direction. It was at a spot in the road that was too narrow for two wagons to pass each other. While it would have been easy for his father to pull off at that place, it was rather awkward for the black man to do so. Nevertheless, Frank’s father refused to yield the road to a black man.

It had to have been fifty years since the incident, but Frank remembered and shook his head saying, “That wasn’t right.”
A lot of things have changed since the time my Uncle Frank was a boy, and since the time I was a boy. While racism hasn’t by any means disappeared, things have, I believe, improved.

My wife Jean brought us home some DVD’s that she had checked out from the library. One of these was To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve seen it a dozen times, but I love to see my favorite movies again through the eyes of my children. This pays big dividends with my middle child because she is a talented viewer. Having spent countless hours in front of the Disney Channel, the ABC Family Channel, and Nick-at-Night, she has developed the ability to look at the first ten minutes of the movie and know how it is going to come out. She will tell you the good guys, the bad guys, who is going to split up, and who will get married.
I’d wanted to see her reaction to a more challenging movie, and when we watched To Kill a Mockingbird, I got my chance. As you recall, the father, Atticus, defends a black man who has unjustly been accused of rape. Atticus, played by Gregory Peck, of course, presents a brilliant defense, which proves that the defendant is innocent. The Middle-Child was eating this up with a spoon and on the verge of giggling the entire time he presented his summation. She “knew” how it was all going to come out.

When the verdict of “Guilty” came back, it was such a shock to her that she couldn’t quite process it. “But that shouldn’t happen,” she sputtered, and that was all she managed to say. It so missed the target of the expectations generated by watching too many movies where the truth has been sugarcoated to make it more palatable, that it actually jarred her. When we see injustice, we should be jarred.
To me, the South forever stands witness to Sin and redemption by Blood. In English translations of the Bible, the word “sin” is used to translate a word that means “missing the mark.” The jury’s “missing the mark” by convicting an innocent man, stands in stark contrast to Atticus, who defends that man at peril to himself and his family. This is foreshadowed in Atticus’s dead aim as he kills the rabid dog, and his remark, “That dog is as dangerous now as he ever was.”

The movie has many other rewards. There is a truth and depth of character that one rarely sees. I enjoy the character Dill, who has never known his father. We see his different reactions as he creates stories about his father and grandfather, so strong is his need for a male role model. This is balanced in the character Scout who has never known her mother. There is a poignant bedtime conversation between her and her brother Jem, where she asks questions about the mother that she does not remember, while their father listens silently from the porch swing.

While I recommend To Kill a Mockingbird on DVD very strongly, I do have a warning. While watching with us, our five-year-old learned a new word—you know the one, the “N” word—and tried it out on us a few times. A sternly said, “I don’t want to EVER hear you use THAT word again,” seems to have done the trick, but only time will tell. As potentially embarrassing as this is, I am proud that was the first time she had ever heard the word. It marks progress. Maybe one of these days we will rid ourselves of one more thing that shouldn’t be.