This weekend I watched the DVD for the first time since Jen showed it to me. I found it tremendously difficult to watch. Partly it was just my aversion to suspense: it's a movie I would find easier to watch with company. And partly because now I know how it comes out: Watching it the first time, I could hope that good would triumph over evil; now I know better.
But mostly I think I found it so hard to watch because the first time I saw it, the racism of the old South was far less concrete to me than it is now. Last spring I spent a week in Birmingham, visiting kareila and alierak (and Will, who to the best of my knowledge doesn't have an LJ yet). We spent an afternoon at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute,* which is across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little girls were blown up in 1963. I spent much of that afternoon fighting back tears, not always successfully. I saw Martin Luther King's jail cell. I saw a burned-out bus. I heard the voices of people asking only to be treated with basic human dignity — and the hateful, twisted voices of their tormentors. I saw some things that were very hard to look at. And I was deeply, deeply ashamed — because the people who did those awful things looked like me.
The institutional racism of the America of just a few years before my birth shifted, that afternoon, from being something I knew about from history books to something I knew about with my gut.
And that knowledge, more than anything else, is what makes To Kill a Mockingbird hard for me to look at now. I think it is a brilliant movie; one of those rare cases where the film does the book justice. I will gladly watch it again — in the company of good friends, especially if one of them has not seen it. But I will never watch it alone again.
* The Civil Rights Institute has a web site, but it entirely fails to convey any real sense of the place. Still, for an extremely superficial view of what we saw that day, take the virtual tour starting here.