02 June 2010

The Mockingbird Lineage

Americans are united this year in celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel and its 1962 movie adaptation are both very, very good, as well as popular, nostalgic, and largely reassuring.

I think it’s also worth noting that To Kill a Mockingbird (in both book and movie forms) has a literary lineage, and may even be the pinnacle of a genre. There were earlier stories of a Young Point-of-View Character (YPoVC) watching a Tall, Strong-Chinned, Upper-Class White Man (TSCUCWM) defend an Unjustly Accused Black Man (UABM) from a lynch mob.

William Faulkner published Intruder in the Dust in 1948, and helped with its movie adaptation the next year, when he also won the Nobel Prize. This was one of his most accessible late novels, though the narration was a challenging stream of consciousness. Faulkner’s plot is not reassuring about racial relations in the genteel, post-WW2 but pre-Movement way. His UABM is a snappish social rebel. His TSCUPWM, a lawyer, must be goaded by teenagers (including the YPoVC) and an old woman into defending the man.

In the movie, the UABM was played by Juano Hernández, his first big-studio role after a career on stage and in Oscar Micheaux’s black cinema. Claude Jarman, Jr., handled the YPoVC part, meaning he shouldn’t be remembered just for The Yearling.

Another example of this little genre is Stars in My Crown, filmed in 1950, three years after Joe David Brown’s nostalgic novel. Its UABM was portrayed by none other than…Juano Hernández! The YPoVC was played by the great Dean Stockwell, and the TSCUCWM—who this time is a minister, not a lawyer—by the great Joel McCrea.

Interestingly, in Trial (1955) Hernández played a judge trying to make sure an unpopular Chicano defendant received a fair trial. Of course, that movie’s main hero is a SCUCWM of average height, played by Glenn Ford. Even more clearly of its time, this movie’s villains are Communists who champion the unjustly accused Mexican man for nefarious purposes.

Hollywood had addressed lynching in other movies adapted from novels:

  • They Won’t Forget (1937), a fictionalized version of the Leo Frank incident; its anonymous director was Mervyn LeRoy, later producer of The Wizard of Oz.
  • The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), the western starring Henry Fonda.
  • The Silver Whip (1953), another western that comes down to lynching.
Those movies involved white lynching victims, and thus addressed America’s racial divide only by allusion. Harper Lee portrayed the oppression of blacks. But she wasn’t the first to do so.


nyrdyv said...

Weird, I always considered the Ox-Bow Incident to be one of the better western movies ever made.


Steven G. Willis

J. L. Bell said...

Another movie in this little genre: Sergeant Rutledge, a John Ford western from 1959. TSCUCWM played by Jeffrey Hunter. UABM played by Woody Strode. But no YPoVC. Courtroom drama with flashbacks.

J. L. Bell said...

Ford's The Sun Shines Bright (1953) is another anti-lynching movie. Ford had reportedly tried to include that plot in an earlier adaptation of the same material, Judge Priest (1934), but the studio didn't approve. I don't know how well the rest of the movie adheres to this pattern.