I’ve always found black and white films kind of creepy in the same manner I find cheerful rock and roll music from the 50s and 60s creepy. There’s something about looking into the past and seeing a strange world, a popular culture I wasn’t part of, dead faces etched permanently in celluloid staring through my flatscreen television. It seems wrong to watch black and white films on a flatscreen television – like it’s a mortal sin – like stepping on a sidewalk crack or killing a mockingbird.
Mockingbirds seem to be on my mind lately. A dusty, highlighter filled copy of To Kill a Mockingbird I got when I was twelve sits open for the first time years. The 1962 film adaptation starring Gregory Peck as the ever idealistic Atticus Finch plays lowly on the television. Peck’s eyes, now forever closed, glimmer with an intensity and optimism as Finch, and I can’t help but think, that’s the man I want to be. That’s the kind of guy who can see a speck of gold in a muddy pond, who can make friends with everyone in a crowded room, and who always seems to have a clear sense of right and wrong.
And I’m also thinking, am I committing a mortal sin? What am I doing in front of this flatscreen, watching the past drift by on rewind? This isn’t a review, at least not in the typical sense; It’s personal, and I’m sharing it with you, but I’m not trying to persuade or convince anyone of the legacy or impact of To Kill A Mockingbird. If you haven’t seen the film or read the novel, the two so intertwined they may as well be the same, then you might as well be on the moon or Mars. This is a testimony, a remembrance of Nelle Harper Lee, who passed away on Friday February 19 at the age of 89.
The black and white film shows my birthplace and my heritage. The Monroeville courthouse where Tom Robinson, a black man accused of rape by a white woman, is tried is the same one I used to pass at five years old in the car with my parents on the way to grandpa’s house and the same one that hosts a play adaptation every year. Maycomb is Monroeville, the birthplace of Harper Lee and Truman Capote, the literary capitol of the South, the town of my parents and my grandparents.
Inspired by her own upbringing, Lee penned the now iconic novel that in turn was adapted into an Academy award winning film. I cannot separate the work of fiction from my past, from my own identity as a Southern man. To Kill a Mockingbird depicts the dark history of the region, of times we are trying to move away from, but it also shows what the South is capable of. Lee’s greatest gifts were Atticus, his daughter Scout, and Boo Radley. These characters defied, like Lee defied, the stereotypes of the South. Living breathing people, trapped by a cycle and by their region. Unlike the movie’s color scheme, the South it illustrates is anything but black and white. Characters have positive traits and flaws. In her words and on film, Lee’s work captured a bygone era of living, of Southern pride, of a certain sensibility and civility and of the the racial injustices and brutality lingering underneath.
“You’re going to be the next Harper Lee.” That’s what I heard growing up when I decided to be a writer. In high school, I won the To Kill a Mockingbird essay contest. I no longer remember what the four years younger version of me wrote, but I know it was in awe of how To Kill a Mockingbird continues to remain relevant. Four years later, I think that’s even more true.
It’s weird how my life and Lee’s seem to follow a similar beat. Sitting in in a newspaper office in Tuscaloosa, I’m working on a story about race relations for The Crimson White, the same paper Lee wrote for 60 plus years prior. And like Lee, I dream of the Big Apple, of traveling there after college and making a name for myself.
But, I’m not Harper Lee. There will never be another Harper Lee or Atticus Finch. There will never be another To Kill A Mockingbird. That’s the legacy of both the film and novel. They capture a period of time that is fading further and further away with each passing day. The old South is all but gone, replaced with a different, progressive Southeast. Perhaps, that is for the best. Lee would want change. Atticus was the precipice for change.
Occasionally, I’ll drive through Monroeville. I haven’t lived there since we moved when I was five, and I suppose I’ll go there even less now that my grandparents have passed away. It’s one of the saddest drives, one where melancholy and nostalgia mix and intermingle. To me, Monroeville exists in some strange limbo, a place that’s both stagnant and different, a place where change is a moot point but also the goal. At night, when it’s pitch black, the town seems so lonely and quiet, and I suppose it will seem lonelier even now. But in that quietness, you can almost hear, the faint sounds of mockingbirds flying far away.