Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

The View from the Porch: Race and the Limits of Empathy in the Film to Kill a Mockingbird

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

The View from the Porch: Race and the Limits of Empathy in the Film to Kill a Mockingbird

Article excerpt

In the slave-owning South and the Puritan-private north, [the porch] served for instance as a vital transition between the uncontrollable out-of-doors and the cherished interior of the home.... all [could] be conducted in the civil atmosphere offered by the shade of a prominent porch, apart from the sleeping and feeding quarters and without serious risk to the family's physical and psychic core.

Reynolds Price, "The Lost Room" (1)

One time, Atticus said you never really knew a man until you stood in his shoes and walked around in them. Just standin' on the Radley porch was enough.

Horton Foote, "To Kill a Mockingbird" (80)

CRITICAL COMMENTARY REGARDING THE FILM TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD since its release forty-eight years ago has focused on the narrative of Horton Foote's screenplay and the character of Atticus Finch, but not on the visual logic of the film itself, implicitly assuming the film and novel to be essentially interchangeable texts. As a consequence, serious critical approaches to the film tend to consider it a cultural artifact rather than an aesthetic one, leaving the formal significance of the film virtually unexamined in favor of its historical occasion. (1) Rather than delving into the complex (and surprisingly under-examined (2)) novel or the familiar storyline, this essay offers a visual reading of the film itself. Considering the enormous and continuous circulation of Mockingbird and its undisputed contribution to the popular imagining of American race history, the following analysis examines the where and how of its nonverbal ideological message, suggesting that the film presents a visual experience of an American progressive compromise in which "white" can empathically know "black" without weakening a racial ideology that depends upon maintaining an essential, impenetrable difference between the two. The film presents this compromised understanding by describing, verbally and visually, the sympathetic inhabiting of an other through an aggregate point of view rather than an individual one. Such an act of sympathetic imagining allows the moral agent to avoid identification with a particular person across the color line while nonetheless making real the pluralistic ideal of empathic understanding between those who are considered by society to be deeply "different."

Thus plays out the enduring magic (trick) of To K271 a Mockingbird: by the end of the film, the moral call to sympathetic identification with a particular other (figured as "standing in their shoes") collapses into a generalized knowledge that thereby has the power to advocate on behalf of the marginalized group. For the dominant (i.e., white, middle class) moral agent, imagining the desires of the marginalized socio-political group morally answers any demand for, or even possibility of, recognition of a fully realized individual member of that group. By the film's conclusion, white viewers (3) have been given the opportunity to stand in the shoes not of an individual African American person/ character, but of the African American "race" itself, thereby leaving intact notions of race as a legible sign of essential grouping "difference." The visual language of the film thereby complicates and limits the story's popularly understood moral of progressive possibilities, illustrating an historically central weakness in national rhetoric surrounding arguments for racial equality whereby an assumed mystified homogeneity (or racial essentialism) constitutes the political ground of group identity, rather than the shared realities of their individual lives. (4) Since sympathetic identification with a racialized group stands at odds with the metaphorical spatial terms of sympathy that the film explicitly and famously lays out (i.e., standing in the "shoes" or "skin" of an individual other), a new kind of space must be imagined for the sympathizer to inhabit, one that allows for the brokering of a compromise, or a deal. …

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