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“Ashamed To Live in a Land Where Justice is a Game”

In the film Just Mercy directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, a young lawyer named Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) moves to Alabama to start a nonprofit organization focused on liberating people wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death row because of racial discrimination. Stevenson’s main case through out the entirety of the movie is one in which a middle aged black man named Walter McMillian (Denzel Washington) has been convicted of murdering a young white woman despite the entire case being based on the false testimony of a white convict who made a plea deal in exchange. The white prosecutors chose to ignore the evidence that would have exonerated Walter McMillian and instead rigged the case to make sure he was convicted. The movie depicts the struggles of not just Mr. McMillian and his lawyer Mr. Stevenson to get the ruling overturned, but struggles of the entire black community in Monroe, Alabama against a system unequivocally in favor of whites.

The beginning of the movie immediately parallels itself with another famous depiction of racial injustice in the Unites States; To Kill a Mockingbird. Not only does Just Mercy take place in the town in which Harper Lee wrote TKAMB, but the plot revolves around the trial of a black man in a white justice system. Also furthering the prevalence of racial discrimination in both works is the name Robert E. Lee, most notably the name of the Confederate Commander during the American Civil War. The judge that first sentences Mr. McMillian is named Robert E. Lee Key, similar to the name of the man accusing Tom Robinson in TKAMB, Robert E. Lee Ewell. The similarities between these two works and their portrayal of racial injustice is hauntingly similar, one being a novel set fifty years before the actual events that Just Mercy is based on occurred, showing the prevalence and continuation that racial injustice has had throughout American history.

The main trials in both works, those of Tom Robinson in TKAMB and Walter McMillian in Just Mercy, both show the racial prejudice against black people in the southern United States. Neither actually committed the crime they were convicted for, both were fighting against a white system with all white juries and judges, and because of this, both had no faith in the justice system. In Just Mercy, Mr. McMillian is originally reluctant to allow Mr. Stevenson to take on his case because he thought it would be pointless due to the white judicial system that needed someone to blame for the murder of the young white woman. One of the cases that Mr. Stevenson and his coworker encounter is one where a white defense attorney states of his black client, “Mad dogs ought to die,” (00:13:30). This shows the mindset and willingness of white people, even defense attorneys assigned to black people, to readily sentence black people to the death penalty, making it hard for any black person to have faith in the justice system. In TKAMB, Tom Robinson similarly lost all faith in the justice system after he and Atticus Finch lose his case in court and he is sentenced to die. Instead of waiting for the outcome of the legal appeal process which Atticus had high hopes for, Tom Robinson decided to risk his life in an attempt to escape from prison which resulted in his death. The fact that both Mr. McMillian and Tom Robinson were so hopeless despite being innocent where they just accepted death as their fate demonstrates how strongly rooted racial injustice is within the Unites States.

Not only was this racial prejudice epitomized with the wrongful convictions of black men, it also occurred in numerous other instances in the works. In both Just Mercy and TKAMB, the black spectators of the trials were forced to sit or stand in the very back of the court room. Mr. Stevenson was also pulled over and held at gun point by police and subjected to a full strip search in the jail before meeting with his client seemingly because of the color of his skin. A black witness, Mr. Houston, was arrested for perjury by white cops after he had told the truth. Later in Just Mercy, after all the evidence had all but proven Mr. McMillian as innocent, the white prosecutor still pushed to have him put on death row. Mr.Stevenson then confronts the prosecutor and says, “Your job is not to get a conviction, it’s to achieve justice,” (01:56:30). This statement exemplifies how the white judicial system thought in a backwards way when trying a black person to a white one. The law enforcement and judicial system allowed their suspicions of black people to drive their prejudice and reasoning when it came to determining whether they were innocent or guilty. From the front lines of law enforcement all the way up to the judge’s bench, black people were inherently wrong or guilty of something, even if there was no evidence or reason for them to be other than, in the eyes of the legal system, their skin.

Injustice in To Kill a Mockingbird

The 1962 To Kill a Mockingbird movie directed by Robert Mulligan is the tragic story of an innocent African American man, Tom Robinson, who is found guilty of rape charges all because of the jury’s prejudice. While the film version does differ from the original novel, written by Harper Lee, it carries the same heavy shadow of injustice that the legal system is plagued with. This film, heavily weighed down with racism, illuminates the flaws that occur in a space that is praised to be the most far of them all. During Tom’s trial, Atticus Finch, Tom’s attorney, delivers many convincing arguments as to how Tom did not rape Mayella. He exposes the consensual relationship the two had, Mayella’s pleads for Tom to visit and assist her, and how Mayella’s bruises do not line up with a purely right-handed man. However, the jury did not use an unbiased eye. They used Tom’s race against him to decide that even in light of all of the evidence that proved him to be innocent, he was guilty. Racism is a major injustice that is woven throughout the flawed legal system in Maycomb, Alabama.    

In the To Kill a Mockingbird film, the injustice of racism does not simply begin in the courts of Maycomb, but it is instilled in the minds of its citizens. This becomes evident throughout the film when Atticus is approached with racist and disgusting comments. Atticus becomes the target of indirect racism himself because he is defending the innocence of an African American man. This movie illuminates the generational racism towards African Americans which leads to the deep injustice found in the legal system. The film shows that a guilty verdict does not necessarily mean a guilty man. Tom Robinson proves that in Maycomb, skin color determines guilt.

Death and the Maiden, written by Ariel Dorfman, also directly works with the same theme of disbelief as the To Kill a Mockingbird film does. Both works highlight the inconsistencies and the injustices of the legal system. While To Kill a Mockingbird shows injustice to be bound in racism, Death and the Maiden finds it through gender. Paulina, as was Tom, suffers through the unescapable pain of not being believed. The difference is that while Tom was not believed by the town of Maycomb, Paulina was not believed by her own husband. This novel illustrates the deep injustice that women experience when their story is not believed.  

Upon Roberto’s arrival, Paulina knows that the man in her own home is her past attacker. She informs her husband, Gerardo, an attorney, of her instinct.  He questions her and her gut feeling, but never turns his back on the strange man, his wife’s alleged attacker. Even after Paulina pleads for her husband to understand and believe her, she instead takes everything into her own hands. In these moments, she is not seen as getting her own version of justice, she is seen as crazy. Paulina knows that she cannot go forth and beg the law for justice for herself. Her own husband refuses to listen and believe her; therefore, she knows that she would have little luck trying to convince a court. There is such a severe injustice for women throughout the legal system that they feel as though they have to step out and do things for themselves.

The most telling lines throughout the entirety of Death and the Maiden is when Paulina and Gerardo are talking through the potential of there being a court where they right the wrongs that happened under the dictatorship. Gerardo has the opportunity to be the attorney for it.  She is less than satisfied when she hears that even after all the evidence is presented, that the criminals still may get away due to a flawed legal system. It is all up to the judges in the end, “The judges? The same judges who never intervened to save one life in seventeen years of dictatorship…Judge Peralta who told that poor woman who had come to ask for her missing husband that the man had probably grown tired of her and run off with some other woman? That judge? What did you call him? A judge? A Judge? (Dorfman 10). This quote severely illuminates that women and victims are more often than not given unfair and unjust treatment in courts of law. One’s pain and abuse is either believed or not due to the decision of one man. Overall, both race and gender show the gaps in the To Kill a Mockingbird film and Death and the Maiden’s legal systems.  

To Kill a Mockingbird and Death and the Maiden

Watching the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird was an extremely different experience than reading the novel. While the plot stays deceptively similar to the book’s–several things are cut, but it sticks largely true to what it does show–seeing the action take place was jarring in a way reading the novel was not. This speaks to the true strength of Harper Lee’s version: Scout’s perspective and her singular, childlike view on everything around her. Without this guiding the story, the film is largely centered around and led by Atticus. The movie paints a wide picture of his life as both a single father and a lawyer in the Deep South in the 1930s. Through focusing on Atticus and the trial rather than Jem and Scout’s youth, the story takes a much different turn for the viewer. Instead of being ensconced in Scout’s innocent, simple life, there is no longer any buffer between the viewer and the dark, disturbing happenings in Maycomb.

I am not sure whether it was because of my own naivete, or Scout’s, but while reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I did not grasp the significance of the scene with the crowd outside of Tom’s holding cell. Not until we discussed it virtually did I fully understand that Mr. Cunningham and his friends tried to lynch Tom Robinson before his case had even come to trial. I did not understand, as Scout did not, what exactly the stakes were for Atticus as he sat on the steps and threatened them with the sheriff. I knew there was danger, but the vague feelings of discomfort and forbearance were replaced by an immediate sense of fear and disgust in the film’s version. Seeing it played out, it is clear and repugnant. Mr. Cunningham, the man who doesn’t like to be thanked, tells Atticus: “You know what we want.” Instead of being somewhat in the dark with Scout, this time I knew what he wanted, too. Replacing the perspective of the story entirely changes the tone, though the outcome remains the same. 

Likewise, when seeing the ending with Bob Ewell and Boo Radley, I was similarly disenchanted. Scout sees Boo as a kind of talisman, protector-like figure, perhaps even an imaginary friend. He represents the curiosity and daring of her childhood, and his rescue of her and Jem is a heroic moment, though he speaks little. Seeing him in the movie, he was actually kind of scary, and it hit me for the first time: he actually murdered a man. Not that Bob Ewell deserved less for his numerous crimes, including being basically responsible for Tom Robinson’s death and attempting to kill two children. The fact remains, though, that Boo Radley came out of his house, for the first time since stabbing his own father, and killed a man with a kitchen knife. It made me wonder if perhaps Atticus had been right to tell his children to stop obsessing over him, and if maybe there was a reason he had been locked away for so long. Without the veneer of childhood, the happy ending in the movie falls short in a way that I don’t think the novel’s ending did. Without Scout running the progression of events and narrating them in her own way as they related to her, the movie simply told a sad story and did nothing to fix it. Not that it could have been fixed; the damage was done. We even see Tom Robinson’s family react to his untimely death, in perhaps the scene hardest to watch. The film sorely missed Scout’s ability to seamlessly pair awful stories with the mundanities of school, summer, and her neighbors; the resilience of a child.

In comparing Atticus’s court scene to the other such representations of trials we have studied, I was drawn to thinking about Death and the Maiden. The cases involved are utterly and completely different, but both victims–Paulina and Tom Robinson–face obstacles that they know the law cannot, or will not, overcome for them. I am conflicted about the comparison between Atticus and Gerardo, but it begs to be made. They are both operators for the state with an interest in seeing the right thing happen, but both fall short in this pursuit. Of course, it is difficult to blame Atticus for the jury’s vote, and impossible to fault Gerardo for trying to dissuade Paulina from killing someone. However, Atticus’s ultimate loyalty is to justice more than to individuals, which reminds me of Gerardo in a sense. Gerardo was affected by his wife’s sufferings, and Atticus by Tom’s, but as lawyers devoted above all else, to the peaceful carrying out of the law, both of them lost something in the process.

Someone else talked about Atticus’s reaction to losing the case, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. He was resigned, not angry, which he had every right to be. Whether or not in the novel this was simply because he hid his anger from his children, in the film we see him grapple with Tom’s sentence and Tom’s death–he is affected, but not changed. He and Gerardo, while committed to justice as they see it, are ultimately serving a future that does not include the current grievances of their clients. Paulina, while on the opposite side of the “courtroom” than Tom, has a lot more in common with Tom than Mayella, her obvious counterpart. Though comparing Mayella and Paulina would reveal an interesting dichotomy; a woman seeking vengeance though held back by her husband, and a woman seeking a wrong vengeance under directions from her father. In Mayella’s case, her testimony did lead to the eventual death of the innocent man she accused. In Paulina’s, we never find out whether or not Roberto died, or whether or not he was innocent. Both show vastly different scenarios of the aftermath of a woman being sexually abused, but showcase the power–whether welded correctly or not–victims have when they say their piece. At the same time, they show the powerless; Paulina is never allowed to fully put Roberto on trial, and Mayella, in the end, put the wrong man to death because of her father’s continued hold over her. Atticus and Gerardo, though they might have won or lost their respective cases, have the power in both the play, the film, and the novel. With the law on their side, right or wrong, they are the heroes of their respective stories, and the ones with the most ability to affect change in their respective worlds.

Just Mercy shares shocking similarities to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in that both are based in the town of Monroeville, Alabama and show a black man wrongfully convicted of a violent crime by an angry white community. However, the Mockingbird Trial took place in the 1930s and Walter McMillian’s case happened in the 1980s. The original trial shocked the Monroeville community after Atticus was able to prove Tom Robinson’s innocence and he was still convicted as guilty and sent to jail. While in jail awaiting execution for his wrongful conviction the guards shot him 17 times in the back stating he attempted to escape.

Nearly 50 years later an almost identical case transpires where Walter McMillian is wrongfully convicted of murder and is waiting on death row for his date. What has changed in those 50 years follows in the wake of To Kill a Mockingbird, there are people who testify against previous false testimonies, there is a DA who eventually agrees all charges need to be dropped, and there is a new generation who sees men like Walter as a person. Progress is slow and takes generations to grow into full blow change, but Walters story shows that very change taking place. The community of Monroeville remember how horrid it was that a man was wrongfully convicted and want things right. There is a young guard in the prison who sees Walter as a human and lets him have pictures of his family when he is in solitary confinement. There’s a young new District Attorney who struggles to protect himself from the “old guard” police force and serve justice to a man he knows was wrongfully convicted of murder. There’s a community of family and friends who 50 years ago would have been lynched if they testified coming out still in fear to testify against this unjust case. All of these are the ripples of change that the original Mockingbird case set forth for this small town and for the nation as a whole.

There is a new generation of lawyers, guards, family, and friends who grew up on the equality and justice Atticus Finch tried to grant to Tom Robinson, and not the hate and prejudice that leads to his death. These few are the ones who worked their way into the corrupt Monroeville justice system and are helping make sure it doesn’t repeat itself again and again. These points play off my earlier post about how the coming of age story is imparted onto us as we read To Kill a Mockingbird early on in middle and high-school. The work this book did, the seed it planted, is growing and has grown with everyone who knows of it. Much like Scout, the people in this movie are new to a case like this but not completely foreign to it – and they know from one very smart girl and her brave father just how to handle it.

This Coming of Age Imparted Onto Us

No matter how we read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird the story always at its core is a coming of age story for Scout and Jem. This trial was a grueling development in the children’s life and as such has shaped them by the end. Scout’s development is what interests me most as it revolves around her self discovery in a sense. She discovers who she is in the scale of race, class, and even as a woman. This trial has taught Scout of the distinctions and separations in all of these areas. She finally can see she is not only a white person, but a comparatively wealthy, white, female. This comes as a fulfilling ending to the novel as we have seen it grow through her actions with Boo and the gifts he brings, the contrast she finds between herself and Mayella, and the distinction between her family and that of the Ewells. All of these are major points that guide Scout into realizing who she is in this world.

I find it to be no coincidence that this novel has become a common middle and high school required reading. I can remember vividly reading this in my 7th grade ENGL classes! What this books does well is impart this coming of age onto us the reader. Reading this novel was a defining event for me and many others as we grew up. The awkward silences when vulgarities were used, the sideways glances between students when hearing of Dill’s tragic family life, or the shadow that engulfs a middle school classroom hearing that Tom Robinson was shot 17 times in his back…

These are emotional events that Scout had to face and we, the reader, must face with her. This novel forces young readers to grow with it as they read it. It allows readers to follow Scout’s path and come to the conclusion of who they are. It can highlight the class, race, and gender privilege at an early age and allow us to begin understanding these concepts so that we can know ourselves. Once we know ourselves we can begin growing and fixing our prejudices, using our privilege for fairness and equality, and reconciling our innocent past with the gritty future after what we learn from reading To Kill a Mockingbird.

Various Portrayals of Motherless Characters

When thinking about the contents of The Furies and To Kill a Mockingbird, if one were to draw a connection between these two works, odds are that connection would not come in terms of thinking about the effect of the lack of mothers present throughout. However, this is one of the first similarities that I thought of and is the one that I am most interested in exploring. In both pieces, the lack of a mother is a very well-known fact, Athena is known throughout Greek Mythology for her birth from her father’s head with no maternity involved; similarly, it is known throughout Maycomb County that Jem and Scout lost their mother at a young age, leaving their father the sole responsibility of raising them. Not only are these facts well known, but in both pieces, the lack of a mother is used as a form of judgement.

In The Furies, the persecution of Orestes stems from him killing his mother. Orestes claims that he was justified in the murder of his mother because he was doing so as retribution for her killing his father; however, the furies are uninterested in his motives, as the motive does not change the outcome. When Orestes is put on trial for the murder of his mother, Apollo defends him by creating the argument that the only parent a child truly needs is their father. In order to create this argument, Apollo mentions that Athena did not have a mother, stating “…the one named mother is not the child’s true parent…I have proof that there can be a father without a mother, proof that what I say is true…The child of Zeus. She never grew in the darkness of a womb, and no goddess could have borne such a child” (657-666).

Furthermore, due to the jury being hung, Athena is given the final decision on the verdict. Athena decides to acquit Orestes of these the charges brought against him with her reasoning being, “I was born of no mother, and I defer to the male in all things with all my heart…Thus, I cannot give precedence to the woman’s death…” (736-739). In doing this, Athena contradicts the furies argument that it is necessary for individuals to have a mother in their life.

Similarly, in To Kill a Mockingbird, Jem and Scout are forced to grow up without a mother, as she died when they were young. Much like the furies believed, many citizens of Maycomb County claim that Jem and Scout are at a disadvantage because they are growing up lacking the presence of a mother. There are a multitude of instances throughout the novel where some citizens claim that Scout in particular is being raised improperly because she does not have a mother in her life teaching her how to be ladylike. However, much like Athena, Scout does perfectly fine without the influence of a mother due to the influence of her father, Calpurnia, and some of the women in her neighborhood.

Mayella’s Reliance on her Identity in her Testimony in TKAM

During the trial scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, Mayella relies on her identity as a white woman to help her throughout her testimony and ultimately win over the jury. She is aware of her social status compared to Tom Robinson’s and is able to use this to her advantage. She also chooses to present herself as weak and fragile in an attempt to prove she is traumatized from the alleged rape.

When Mayella is asked to tell the jury about what happened during the evening of the incident, she initially sits silent. It is obvious that she knew she would be required to give her testimony, so she had plenty of time to mentally prepare for this moment. She silences herself and cries with the intentions of playing the victim.

If Tom Robinson was truly guilty, Mayella would have displayed confidence in her responses during her testimony. Instead, she presented tears, distress, and hesitance in her responses. When Atticus asks Mayella if she had asked for Tom’s assistance before, she first denies it, saying, “I did not, I certainly did not” (209) but when asked again she says, “I mighta” (209). Mayella’s inconsistent answers gives the jury little reason to believe her, but they ultimately take her side because she is a white woman.

In her last statement, she says that Tom Robinson “took advantage of me an’ if you fine fancy gentlemen don’t wanta do nothin’ about it then you’re all yellow stinkin’ cowards, stinkin’ cowards, the lot of you” (214). She relies on her identity to save her from having to speak anymore.

Mayella plays a major role in Maycomb’s preservation of social order. Although it is clear to me that she could have presented a much stronger testimony to ensure that Tom would be found guilty, the system worked in her favor regardless. It is the social inequality and racial prejudice of Maycomb that allowed Tom Robinson to be falsely convicted of rape.

Go Set a Watchman: a different side of the same coin

I recently finished this reread of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman for the first time. After reading both texts consecutively, I understand the comments about the latter novel being something of a departure from the original story. However, I thought that the two fit together naturally, and paired wonderfully as complements. In fact, I loved Go Set a Watchman even more than I do To Kill a Mockingbird, and reading it made me appreciate Harper Lee’s skills as an author more than I did before. 

WARNING: spoilers below for Go Set a Watchman!

Perhaps because I can personally relate to Scout’s plight in Go Set a Watchman, or perhaps simply because I knew to expect it, I was not at all surprised by the opinions that Atticus expresses in this second novel. I do not think that they change the significance of his character’s actions in To Kill a Mockingbird. Certainly, Atticus is taken off of a pedestal for the reader–just like he is for Scout–but I do not think that Lee contradicts herself at all. Instead of playing around again in Maycomb, she enters the real world, along with Scout, and the reader. The first novel had terrible things occur–but seen from Scout’s eyes, everything ended up with a rosy veneer. In this novel, Scout instead faces the true difficulties and ugly realities of a society so plagued by its nasty history.

Calpurnia might have loved Scout and Jem, and I believe she did, but there were lots of issues to address with those relationships once an adult narrator was available. The scene in her bedroom was heartbreaking for Scout, but it was critical for Lee to include. With Atticus, I see it the same; it isn’t easy to read, but he cannot be perfect. His devotion to the law led him to defend Tom Robinson and crusade for the cause of equal treatment. But still, his devotion to the law led him to stand against potential violators, even those protesting for equal rights and better treatment. 

To be honest, Atticus, despite becoming much more complicated and harder to like, remains my favorite character. I still want to believe that he believes in equality under the law–my interpretation of his remarks, which could be wrong, were that he is angry and even scared concerning the “lawlessness” of the Civil Rights Movement happening at the time, and the pressure on the South to change its ways immediately. I would argue that Atticus would not despise a world where blacks and whites live in true equality; simply that he would want such a world to come about naturally, slowly, and with regards to the laws and traditions of the South. Obviously, this is an empty and gross placation; if anyone had waited for that to happen, we would probably still be living like they do in the novels right here in South Carolina (not that we either have reached our peak of racial equality, we definitely have not). So I am fully on Scout’s side when she argues with him and calls out his beliefs, but I can see that for a man of his age in his time, this is nearly the best that Lee can do in giving the readers an accurate, “unproblematic” lead male adult character. He doesn’t hate black people, but he doesn’t want them to be judges. Of course. Atticus is brought down to Earth, for his daughter and the reader; now I can recognize him as human, someone I’ve seen before, and so can Scout.

Censorship of Trial

During the court proceedings, there is a request that all women and children be removed from the courtroom so the “truth” may be heard in full rather than the testimonies having to be censored for the spectators. This is an arbitrary request, perhaps a ploy to lure Judge Taylor into permitting censorship of the testimony and muddying the already murky and questionable details of the case in favor of Mr. Ewell.

Judge Taylor’s response, however, is ,”…people generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for…” Those who are in the courtroom have as much of a right as any to hear the details of the case as any. They made the conscious decision to be there, and to take away that right is to nullify the reason for the trial in the first place–to determine the innocence or guilt of Tom Robinson. Besides, the graphic nature of the details will, according to Judge Taylor, not sway the people’s opinion because if people want the kernel of guilt to be planted there, they will hear it no matter if the accused is truly culpable of the crime.

The case should be heard for what it is, not a censored version that allows the details of the incident to be buried beneath anonymity and vague blanket statements. If people hear only half of the story, their opinions will be disproportionately skewed with far-reaching outliers. Guilt will be presumed, and a fair and equal trial will have been robbed from the accused. Whether the case was ever able to have a fair shake due to racial predetermination in the community is a separate argument in itself; however, it is able to be accurately stated that there can be no fair trial without the presentation of all the details. People made the conscious decision to absorb the presented information as everyone in that room knew in advance there were accusations of rape; nobody forced them to sit in a courtroom and listen to the gruesome details. They did that of their own volition and therefore presented their consent to listen to the details. If they decided it was too much for them, they had the right and freedom to leave at their discretion.

To Kill a Mockingbird: Old and New Perceptions

When I was. junior in high school, I read To Kill a Mockingbird. Although, I did not read this novel as an assignment in school, I read it on my own in my free time because my father continuously suggested that I read it. My first reading of this novel was definitely a lot different than the second time around, that second time being for this class. The main difference is that I can much better understand now, whether it be because I am older or just noticing more the second time, a lot more of the symbolism that occurs in this novel. One main thing I came to realize during my second reading is that the “Mockingbird” in the title most plausibly referring to innocence; that being said “To Kill a Mockingbird” means “The loss of innocence”. When discussing this book when I was in high school, my father would always say this was one of the most important ideas of the story but I never truly understood until now. The majority of the characters in this story lose their innocent nature in some way. The characters change of view which intrigued me most was when Jem realizes after Tom’s trial that the world is an unfair place. Because of the racism in this trial he comes to understand that not everyone acts from the goodness of their hearts, and that is when the world becomes real to him.