Fifty-five years after it was first published, To Kill a Mockingbird’s themes of social injustice, morality, and race continue to resonate in the 21st century.
Sandra Jaffe, a screenwriting instructor in the College of Arts, Media and Design, saw firsthand just how much some youth today can relate to Harper Lee’s first novel when she began work on her documentary Our Mockingbird, which examines why the book remains an important part of American society.
While observing a To Kill a Mockingbird lesson at a Boston public high school, Jaffe spoke to a student who noted that he could relate to Tom Robinson, a wrongly accused African-American character on trial in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
“(The student) was from Saudi Arabia and he said that he had been unjustly accused of being a terrorist,” Jaffe explained. “He said that after 9/11 he had been taunted by his classmates because he was an Arab and he would go home from school and cry. And that was the signal for me to go ahead and truly pursue this project.”
Eight years of work on the documentary culminated this month when Our Mockingbird premiered on the PBS series America Reframed. It is now streaming online on PBS’ website. The documentary features interviews with Katie Couric, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, and the actors who played Scout and Jem in the 1962 film To Kill A Mockingbird, as well as other writers, scholars, lawyers, teachers, students, and civil rights activists.
“What I wanted to do was tell a story about how the novel is a lens to look at race, class, and justice—then and now.” Jaffe said. “As recent events in Ferguson and New York have shown, To Kill a Mockingbird continues to be timely.”
Woven into the interviews is a story about two Birmingham, Alabama-area high schools—one that Jaffe said is all-white and one that is all-black—coming together to put on a production of a play adapted from the novel.
“What was powerful for me was to watch and record these students having the chance to experience another culture, in many cases for the first time,” noted Jaffe, a Birmingham native.
Lee, 88, returned to the national spotlight this month with the announcement that Go Set a Watchman, her second novel and a de facto sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, would be published in July. Lee is known to shy away from the spotlight and some in the literary industry have questioned whether this new novel was originally intended to be published, and have raised concerns that Lee, who is in declining health, is being manipulated by members of her inner circle.
“I think it’s incredibly exciting,” Jaffe said. “There are probably a lot of people having their own fantasies right now about how (Lee) portrayed these characters who in the new book will be 20 years older than our initial encounter with them. She is said to have written the novel before To Kill a Mockingbird and it will be interesting to see how she imagined the adult Scout before even writing all the coming-of-age material so familiar to To Kill a Mockingbird readers. There are so many possibilities about where these characters could be.”