Atticus, we need you

Last week I featured “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the weekly Fundamentals in Film series on this blog. The main drama in that movie centers around a black man, Tom Robinson, on trial for raping a white woman. The man is defended by the main character of the movie, Atticus Finch. As I watched the movie again it got me to thinking about some the interesting parallels and juxtapositions between the movie trial and the seamy details surrounding the current rape case against the Duke lacrosse players.

My interpretation of these parallels does not mean I think the Duke players are innocent of rape as Robinson was innocent. The statements and disparagement of the evidence (and lack of evidence) proclaimed by the defense teams are interesting, but I keep in mind that these are the defense lawyers after all, doing their job while the prosecution has to play it closer to the vest. It is worth noting that while there has been a lot of attention focused on the alleged victim’s questionable past, it turns out that one of the defendents himself may not be a model of decorum either. This doesn’t mean that he or his friend are guilty, either. That judgment must still be played out, and will be in the eyes, ears and hands of the judge and jury that draw the case.

What I found interesting, however, is that implicit in the movie was the prejudicial “you know how they are” assumption by most of the whites regarding Tom and his fellow black men. Part and parcel of that was the belief that one didn’t dare doubt the word of a white woman, especially over that of a black man. Today the situation is reversed: I sense a distinctly implied “you know how they are” assumption about the privileged, white lacrosse players from an elite school. Meanwhile, politically correct doctrine says that of course you never doubt the word of a woman over a man. These are really just different drawers in the same chifferobe, where ugly things have been stuffed for generations. I would have hoped that if we had learned anything by now it is that no sex and no race has a monopoly on honor and innocence, nor is any free from having its own self-serving agendas and rationalizations.

In both the movie and in real life the defense tries to show the absurdity of the prosecution’s case. Atticus Finch, for example, demonstrated that the victim could only have been beaten by a left-handed man, while the defendent was unable to use his left hand as a result of a childhood farming accident. Today, the miracles of DNA testing, cell-phone photos and time-stamped ATM transactions go up against eye-witness accounts and whatever evidence District Attorney Mike Nifong has that has given him the confidence to pursue the case.

In both the movie and in the current events it is clear that something went on. The movie didn’t reveal just what that something was. It will be interesting to see if the same will be said of the upcoming trial. One thing that does seem the same in both cases, however, is that the person representing the interests of the black person (Finch for the defense in the movie, Nifong now) shoulders the most hostility. For everyone’s sake, what this circus needs is the quiet decency of a real-life Atticus on both sides but I fear that possibility left town the minute the first tv camera hit town, leaving the media to grow as fat and thick as ticks on a Carolina hound.

Of course, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was a story, while today’s story is all too real. The real difference for me, however, is that the movie reflected the fear of change. Today’s events reflect the fear that perhaps we haven’t really changed at all.

2 thoughts on “Atticus, we need you

  1. Well said, and so true on so many levels. The once child-like idealist in me thought that after the lessons of Martin Luther King, we would all learn not to be prejudiced. And each and every year presents more evidence that we haven’t changed a bit.

    I live in Phoenix where the turmoil over immigration has risen to a fever-pitch. And yet my own ancestors, and likely those of many opposing immigration, were what was called at the time “dirty Irish.” How can we reconcile that?

  2. You reconcile that by welcoming people who have respect for our laws by emigrating legally, and by sending those packing who don’t.

    I have nothing but open, welcoming arms for immigrants who come here legally; skin color is immaterial.

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