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Sunday, April 08, 2012

Racial Language in To Kill a Mockingbird - Could This Film Be Made Today?

Would the honest racial language in Harper Lee's classic book "To Kill a Mockingbird" be included, if a potential remake of the powerful movie were made today?

When the movie was made in 1962, Gregory Peck superbly portrayed the Southern white defense lawyer, Atticus Finch, who defended a poor Black man against the trumped up charge of the rape of a white woman. Peck gave an Academy Award winning performance - the role of Atticus Finch defined his long and successful acting career.

Movie makers today might be pressured to create a commercially successful movie from the book, even film it in technicolor, rather than protect the black and white original.  In the black and white film genre, the screen play accurately contrasted the dramatic story of white racial hatred toward Blacks in the South, during the Great Depression.

Moreover, use of the word "Nigger", by 9 year old Scout, coupled with a vivid description of sexual harassment perpetrated on a black man by a white woman, might be camouflaged as euphemisms, were the film to be re-made.

USA network's 50th anniversary restoration of the magnificent black and white movie, was as powerful to watch, as it was in 1962, when it was first released. Harsh racial themes and the reality of the language are still riveting. Unfortunately, the issues depicted continue plaguing our American society.

Innocence opens the story. It begins with three children playing neighborhood pranks, to test their bravery against a neighborhood disabled phantom character known as "Boo" (Robert Duvall).

Scout (Mary Badham) is a tomboy 9 year old, the sister to older brother, Jem (Phillip Alford).  Their father is the widower and lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck). Soon, the siblings are joined by Dill Harris (John Megna), a 7 year old boy who is visiting his aunt. The story takes place in 1932, in the sleepy Southern town of Maycomb, where racial tensions were easily ignited between Depression era struggling white farmers and Black tenant sharecroppers.

Soon, the innocence of the playful encounters gets replaced by the racial bigotry in the plot. Life changes when soft spoken Atticus Finch agrees to defend a Negro named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), accused of raping a local white girl.

Racial language was relatively common in the 1930s. But today, it was particularly disturbing to hear the use of the word "Nigger", by 9 year old Scout.  When Scout uses the word "Nigger", Atticus tells her not to use the word because it is slang, only used by people who are common.

Nonetheless, Scout somehow buffers the caustic racial slur, because she is the symbol of  blessed naivety. Yet, I wonder how movie critics today would respond to a 9 year old using the word "Nigger", if the film were remade.

Unsettling language in the movie continued in the court room, when the Negro accused of the crime described the unwanted seduction he experienced by the white woman who claimed she raped him.  It was a straightforward description, by the black man, toward unwanted sexual advances, difficult to listen to, even by tolerant modern mores. This encounter, in my mind, raises the question of how such a powerful film would be made by the 3-D movie industry today.

In my opinion, "To Kill a Mockingbird",  could not use the same powerful language and brutal description of interracial sexual harassment, if it were made today - doing so would likely create an intercultural and racial bru-ha-ha.  What movie mogul would even invest in it?

I believe Robinson's black man encounter with the white woman Mayella Violette Ewell (Colin Wilcox) would not even be dialogue, at all. Rather, the scene would likely become a color flashback, probably portrayed in a snippet of collage style footage, loosing the dramatic impact of the compellingly delivered narrative.

Moreover, I submit the word "Nigger" would be completely cut, except when the Black community in Maycomb might have used it to refer to one another. Essentially, the role of Scout would be completely eviscerated. She would become an adornment to the film, rather than the lead character and story teller.

In other words, Harper Lee's riveting story, with it's caustic lessons about racial bigotry, and discrimination against Negroes and disabled people like Boo, hasn't moved the needle very far along toward the resolution of the social biases described in her story. Acceptance of racial differences and social inclusion for people with disabilities are still difficult subjects.

Which is precisely why reading Lee's book and watching the well written screenplay by Horton Foote, directed by Robert Mulligan, must be encouraged for each new generation - as President Barack Obama so aptly explained in his introduction of the film's 50th anniversary restoration.

I'm glad to have watched this film, a superb encore, 50 years later. Yet, like others, I'm sad to think about how the powerful themes are still with us, unresolved, and just as difficult to discuss as they were when Lee wrote her now internationally acclaimed award winning novel.



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