Alex (yakshaver) wrote,

Movie 3: To Kill a Mockingbird

In high-school, my friends and I were fond of saying American culture is an oxymoron. I am now well aware that America has produced its share of world-class artists in many fields: Mark Twain, Duke Ellington, Frank Capra to name just three no-one would argue against. But the disdain for American culture we felt is not uncommon among young American intellectuals. It is a remarkably stupid and ignorant position, one I was fortunate enough to begin to outgrow during my freshman year in college, when I read Emily Dickinson But during those years when I was reading most voraciously, I read almost none of my own country's great writers. So when kareila showed me To Kill a Mockingbird a few years ago, the title was the only thing about it that was familiar. I found it deeply moving, and immediately went out and bought both the DVD and the book, which I promptly read and adored. That was about four years ago.

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.
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