To Kill a Mockingbird

“To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), starring the great Gregory Peck.

Last night Candice and I attended the 50th anniversary screening of To Kill a Mockingbird at the Motion Picture Academy‘s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. As is the case with all Academy screenings, it was an incredible evening: in addition to the newly-restored digital print, the event included opening remarks by Tavis Smiley, a short documentary clip of Gregory Peck talking about his career, and a panel discussion with Mary Badham (“Scout”), Connie Rice (a prominent civil rights attorney), and Terrence Roberts, who as a 15 year-old in 1957 volunteered with eight other African-American students to integrate the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. This group was thereafter known as the “Little Rock Nine.”

I think To Kill a Mockingbird is the quintessential film about race in America, and the fact that it earned eight Oscar nominations in 1962, at precisely the time when America’s civil rights movement was being met with so much violence, reminds us just how divided our country actually is. How interesting that the exact day of the film’s 50th anniversary also witnessed the long-awaited arrest of George Zimmerman, a white security guard who killed an unarmed African-American teenager in Florida a few weeks ago. As Connie Rice put it so eloquently during the discussion, “Listening to Americans talk about race is like listening to a bunch of nuns talk about sex.”

The film was masterfully photographed by Russell Harlan, and the pristine quality of the restored print reminded me how seductive the black-and-white format can be. There’s a certain elegance in the film’s camerawork, and the lighting for the film’s night exteriors is inspiring in its simplicity. Films from that era still used predominantly hard lighting sources (as opposed to the soft sources that are so popular today), and I often find myself captivated by cinematography that employs this style with so much delicacy. I’ve had the opportunity to study this school of lighting a bit from some of the older gaffers I’ve worked for, guys that got their start in the 1960s, but generally speaking it’s a dying art.

In listening to the intensity of the panel discussion that followed the screening I couldn’t help but think about my ongoing research into the social utility of cinema, and what that concept looks like outside of the non-fiction genre. No one could argue that To Kill a Mockingbird hasn’t had far-reaching influence on our country’s dialogue about race, a dialogue that continues to play a central role in the formation of our national identity.