Next week, we’ll watch and discuss 12 Angry Men.
The thing that everyone remembers about To Kill a Mockingbird is the trial. Atticus Finch is one of the most beloved characters in fiction. Watching him break down the accusations against his black client* is masterful and tragic: the mangled arm, the angry father, the hysterical, clearly lying but also clearly brutalized, victim. But while I put this movie on the list as a way of sparking discussion about lawyers who defend clients who are facing the death penalty and the jurors who decide those cases, I found myself thinking far more about the person watching her lawyer father work: Scout Finch.
I’d forgotten how young Scout is in the novel and the movie — she’s just six. And the movie is both about her increasing awareness of the world around her and the way the world reaches out for her, the fact that the innocence of childhood is an imagined and impossible-to-maintain state.
There’s no question that, for a while, Atticus Finch buys into the idea that he can protect his children from his defense of Tom Robinson. When Del, the neighbor boy who is a stand-in for Harper Lee’s real-life neighbor, Truman Capote, suggests, “Let’s go over and watch!” the opening stages of the trial, Scout has a clear sense that her father wants her to stay away from his work. “He wouldn’t like that,” she says uneasily, but she and Jem follow Del anyway, listen to him explaining that through the courtroom doors that “There’s a whole lot of men sitting together on one side and there’s a man pointing at the colored man and yelling. They’re taking the colored man away.” When Atticus catches them, he sends them home immediately.
But that doesn’t really keep Scout away from the house. And even when Scout comes home, having whipped Cecil Jacobs for the sin of declaring that her father “defends niggers,” Atticus tries to draw the line, telling her, “There are some things that you’re not old enough to understand just yet. There’s been some hard talk around town.” But when it’s clear that his inquisitive daughter, the one who wants to know why she can’t inherit his watch, isn’t going to let it go, Atticus tries to give her the tools to deal with what’s going to happen to her, saying: “You’re going to hear some ugly talk about this in school. But you have to promise me one thing: that you won’t get into fights over it, no matter what they say to you.”
And it’s not just the trial. Scout’s been an intermediary in her father’s practice from the first scene of the movie when one of her father’s clients comes buy to pay him in a bag of nuts. “I think it embarrasses him to be thanked,” Atticus tries to explain to his daughter. But she figures out how to exploit that sense of gratitude and embarrassment on her own when Mr. Cunningham becomes part of a mob. “I said hey, Mister Cunningham,” she says when he won’t meet her eye. “How’s your entailment getting along” Don’t you remember me? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought some hickory nuts along…I go to your school. I go to school with Walter. He’s a nice boy. Tell him hey for me.” It’s notable that this is the first time she uses her full name, both standing with her father, and using the fact that she’s a girl to bolster her moral credibility.
Her understanding’s still limited, though. When Bob Ewell attacks her and Jem in retaliation for their father’s humiliation of him in court, Scout doesn’t really have the language for what’s happened to her. “I don’t know. I just don’t know,” she says when her father tries to figure out what’s happened to her.
In a way, the movie’s an inverse of the conventional narrative about the death penalty: this terrible thing happened, and we must send a message so strong and deterrent that it will never happen again. Scout sees the ways the legal process can go wrong, she sees the man who’s a supposed threat to her community murdered, and she’s still made a victim. The world is big, and unpredictable. To think that we can produce rationalism with a decision undergirded by emotion doesn’t make sense.
*This case is the perfect example of something that Paulie Carbone is careful to point out: that it’s the race of the victim that produces disparities in death penalty cases, not the race of the defendant.