Perhaps one of the most popular courtroom dramas of all time, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, has finally arrived on the Broadway stage. Starring Jeff Daniels as the famed fictional lawyer Atticus Finch, the adaptation was recently crowned the highest-grossing American play in Broadway history and was nominated for nine Tony Awards earlier this summer. The Broadway adaptation, however, is not your grandmother’s To Kill a Mockingbird, taking what we think we know about justice in Maycomb County and turning it on its head.
In this clip from Daniels’s visit to Live from Here, Atticus delivers the closing argument of Tom Robinson’s defense to the Maycomb County court. In this scene, the Atticus of the novel is rational and level-headed while advocating for a change to the town’s status quo; Broadway’s Atticus is angry and emotional while demanding equality for his client. He is no longer calling for a change to Maycomb’s racial sensibilities, but rather calling out those who have taken on the role of oppressor in Maycomb. With passion and fury, he shames the prosecutor for mocking Tom’s disability and the jury for believing that a conviction would put this Black man back in his place. He then turns his attention to the Ewells, berating them for spreading hate and lies from the fount of justice that is the courtroom. Like the Atticus of Lee’s novel, he pities the family but does not excuse the lies they’ve told simply because they are white. Here, it’s clear that this Atticus knows that the Ewells, and the white population of Maycomb at large, have committed an even worse crime than the one they have accused Tom Robinson of: using their white privilege to accuse a Black man of a crime he did not commit. Atticus is no longer imploring Maycomb to return to the bearings of its moral compass, but rather reckoning with the question of if it has one at all.
The relevance of this scene in our country’s current political climate cannot be ignored. In a place where we separate parents from their children, publicly mourn the lives of those lost to mass shootings and police brutality, and gather in the streets to protest all kinds of manifestations of microaggressions, Atticus’s moral outrage is certainly not unfamiliar. Like him, we cry out: Where is our humanity, our decency, and our sense of justice? Where is our respect for everyone’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness? Where are the fine people on both sides? Atticus no longer seems to know, and neither do we. In calling upon our modern-day need for goodness, the Broadway adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird reminds us that this story is not a period piece, but rather an always relevant, stark portrait of the moral wasteland that is America—and gifts us an Atticus for our time.
Great post, Hayley. I like your discussion of the differences between the Atticus Finch of the novel and Mr. Daniels' portrayal. I also like your discussion of the scene's relevance to the current political climate in the U.S. I have not yet seen the Broadway adaptation of the play. However, I have heard great things about it. Thank you for your post.
Thank you, Haley, for this post. This clip, particularly as you situate it in our current political climate, is both heartbreaking and powerful. I haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird in decades, but it's back on my reading list.
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