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RACHEL WATSON University of Chicago The View from the Porch: Race and the Limits of Empathy in the Film To Kill a Mockingbird 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 1 A few examples of critics who prioritize the historical contingencies of the film include Patrick Chura, Allison Graham, and Colin Nicholson. Essays from literary journals that center on the film consider its use in the classroom in conjunction with teaching the novel (see for example Frank Baker’s website and the teacher study guide discussed in the April 1997 issue of The English Journal.). The frequent appearance of Atticus Finch in law journals and essays regarding the legal profession tend to ignore the distinction between Atticus Finch as portrayed by Gregory Peck according to Horton Foote’s screenplay and Atticus Finch the fictional character rendered by Harper Lee (see for example Steven Lubet, Kevin W. Saunders, Tim Dare, an issue of the Alabama Law Review .dedicated to the novel and film in 1994, and a note by the editors of the Harvard Law Review in 2004). 420 Rachel Watson the complex (and surprisingly under-examined2 ) 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 dependsuponmaintaininganessential,impenetrabledifferencebetween 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 Kill 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 viewers3 have been given the opportunity to 2 Notable exceptions to this are Alice Hall Petry’s edited collection On Harper Lee: Essays and Reflections, Johnson’s Threatening Boundaries, and Harold Bloom’s edited collection To Kill a Mockingbird: Modern Critical Interpretations. 3 For the purposes of my argument, I am primarily interested in looking at ways in which the film operates as a message for white, politically moderate audiences rather than in examining...


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