Well, Dar’s brother has now been taught to see his own brother as Boo Radley. He’s 8. Too early, too late, or too white-saviory?
This may be the first time I’ve mentioned this here, but I have kind of an awesome new website, bestlovedfilms.com, doing something a little different, essentially serving as the Louvre of cinema…with podcasts! I think you’ll love it and you should check it out. But I mention it here because as part of prep for it, I recently rented To Kill a Mockingbird.
I’m not a huge To Kill a Mockingbird person. I respect those that are and I know several of them, friends who have given kids and pets names like Atticus and Harper and Scout. (And I know that has become a problem since Go Set a Watchman; let’s not go there.) I have no problem with the book sitting at number one on lists of American books or Goodreads books or whatever. I think I read the book once, in junior high. I’m more familiar with the movie, although still not that familiar. I hadn’t seen the whole thing since before I met my wife. Only on this recent watch did I realize that the Bangles may well have cribbed “Walk Like an Egyptian” from this film. Having Jem and Scout emulate African culture (in whatever childish way) is a clever touch.
You know your 8-year-old best. Or you did, or you will. Mine hates superheroes, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and anything fantasy-related. He says that’s all scary. Instead he has been playing Minecraft wayyyyyy too much since the pandemic began.
I remembered that To Kill a Mockingbird is about kids facing their fears. I also knew that I could tie it to discussions me and this 8-year-old have been having about Black Lives Matter. So yeah, I sat him down and told him, “this is a story of kids around your age.” Well, we are told Jem is 10 and Scout is 6. See I didn’t lie, those ages are *around* 8.
Perhaps you’re wondering if I can get Dar to watch movies. Ha! If you know Dar, you know he can’t sit still for more than a few minutes and God knows if he’ll focus on anything for even that long. Can I force him to be in the room? I mean, yes, I can strap him down. I just don’t want to. So while R and I watched the movie, Dar flitted in and out of the room in his usual hummingbird-like way.
The first time Bob Ewell said a certain word that rhymes with Tigger, maybe 10 minutes into the movie, R looked at me like I had just shown him the pit of an outhouse. I said, not for the last time, “It’s almost 100 years ago in Alabama. This is how things were. We need to know how they were to know how we are.” R already knows not to say that word, ever. Dar can’t say any words.
When To Kill a Mockingbird does come up in my classes – remember that I teach the “diversity in cinema” classes – it’s usually as the archetypal “white savior” narrative. No need to dig deep into that here. I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with showing white boys one white savior film. In fact, it’s good for R to imagine himself an adult ally. Stories of white saviors become a problem when they get received as the only, or only good, stories of persons of color. In the case of Dar and his brother, To Kill a Mockingbird is already not that.
There’s also no need to dig deep here into the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird. Obviously, stop reading if you don’t want it spoiled. When you’re an old fart like me, memory problems can serve as their own anti-spoilers. I was so keen to slow-walk R through the racial stuff (or maybe I’d focused too much on certain clips in my classes), I kinda forgot to think through the Boo Radley stuff. That is, if I’d bothered to focus on it, I’d have remembered that Boo Radley is ostracized because of his disability.
When R and I sit down to watch things, I put away my phone. I focus as much as I’m asking him to focus. And in this case, I’m glad I did.
Toward the end, Boo Radley saves Jem and Scout from the creepy racist n-word-saying Bob Ewell by sticking a knife in his back. Atticus calls the sheriff, who comes. Young blond non-verbal Robert Duvall is hiding behind a door, and Scout says “hi Boo.” After the sheriff tells Atticus that the story will be that Boo fell on his knife, I say to R, “think of how the neighbors must think of Dar. Think of how they’ll think of him when he’s 25 or so and living here and making all his weird noises. The kids around here then will tell stories like he’s a kind of boogeyman.”
R says, “But we know better than that.”
Scout tells Atticus, “Sheriff Tate was right. It would be sort of like shooting a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?”
Scout is redirecting Atticus’s analogy (from earlier in the story) about why we might kill other animals, for example crows that eat crops, but we never kill a mockingbird, because all they do is sing for us.
Wikipedia and Sparknotes will tell you that Scout means that if the painfully shy Boo Radley were to be hailed as a hero, that would hurt him. Maybe that’s clear in the book; I’m not sure that’s clear in the film. The film’s titular analogy, as Scout uses it, can just as easily mean that if Boo Radley were to be thrown in prison for years, that would hurt him, or that if he went through a trial, he might get killed just as Tom Robinson was.
As I watched Scout hold Boo Radley’s hand as she walked him home, rivers of tears welled up in my eyes, that kind you hide when your kid’s head is resting on your lap. That kind where you hope he’s not gonna ask you a direct question, because you won’t have any voice.
He didn’t, thank God. Instead we both watched Scout narrate, “One time, Atticus said you never really knew a man until you stood in his shoes and walked around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.”
I truly don’t think we’ll ever know Dar. And he’ll certainly never save two kids’ lives. But there is something genuine and resonant about the idea that no one should ever hurt him, because all he wants to do is sing for us. Right that minute, watching Scout standing on the Radley porch was enough.