Classic Scene: Atticus Passing
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
directed by Robert Mulligan
The Scene: With his children watching along with the local African American community segregated to the upper gallery, Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) had just poured his heart and soul into defending the blatantly innocent Tom Robinson (Brock Peters). Given the color of his client’s skin he has already been rendered guilty in the minds of the all white jury. As everyone leaves the courtroom, Atticus lingers deciding on his next move in the appeals process. Defeated he gathers his things and makes his way towards the door and as he does the entire gallery stand, including the children Jim, Scout, and Dill; as a sign of respect to the man who fought for one of their own against the odds.
The Breakdown: When ranking the greatest film heroes of all time, the American Film Institute ranked Atticus Finch as portrayed by Gregory Peck as the number one choice. If anyone has any doubts about this decision they must have never seen To Kill a Mockingbird. Throughout the film he has shown himself as nothing less that a strong, decent, and stalwart father who believes in justice and equality. In that courtroom, Finch demonstrated everything his taught his children he practiced as well. While the verdict may be a forgone conclusion, he holds onto the slim glimmer of hope that logic will win through. At the end, Finch tries to maintain a strong exterior but you can see his spirit is broken. While he may have failed in his mission, he has clearly earned the respect of the African American community in Maycomb County. Atticus may not feel worthy of it, but for a group of people who are clearly treated as second-class citizens the fact that he made a stand against the bigotry and racism they face meant a great deal. Given the kind of man Atticus Finch is, and the fact Jim and Scout are familiar with Reverend Sykes well enough to sit with him, we as the audience can gather this is not the first time he has taken on a case like this, but in this trial the stakes could not have been higher. The message is clear, they hold the lawyer in great esteem. In that moment, Scout, the young girl who had done a lot of growing up over the course of this film saw just how much her father’s work meant.
The Best Bit: Local leader Reverend Sykes nudging Scout to stand with everyone else with the emotional gut punch of a line “Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing”.