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Consciousness and Racial Conscience in the Work of Robert Mulligan

by Zach Campbell

Zach Campbell is a student finishing his BFA in cinema studies and art history at New York University.  He hopes to one day make a living writing and teaching about film.

Robert Mulligan made two films that deal with white children coming to terms with the existence, experience and marginalization of black people who live on the margins of white consciousness in America. One of the films is To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Mulligan’s most famous film, and the other is Clara’s Heart (1988), his little-known penultimate effort. Both of these films present problems to the viewer, ideological in the former and narrative and tonal in the latter, but there is a fascinating, unifying commonality to both that can only be explained by Mulligan’s presence as director. The result is that these films are greatly worthwhile for reasons associated with the direction, and their greatness can be at the same time caused by and antithetical to some of the very flaws of the material.

To Kill a Mockingbird was the second of six films that Mulligan directed in collaboration with producer Alan J. Pakula. The collaborative duo was part of what John Belton identified as a school of filmmakers emerging at that time who largely came out of New York and had gotten their start in television. Belton himself singled out Mulligan for praise in part because of the element of detachment he brought to enrich his very sincere, socially conscious stories.

The film’s well-meaning message of “understanding” has cemented a place for the film in our culture that it perhaps doesn’t deserve, or at least, deserves with qualifications that have yet to come. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s commentary on the American Film Institute’s top 100 list included the line, “it was more than a little disconcerting to fly back to Chicago, turn on the TV, and hear Jack Valenti praise the mediocre and relatively gutless To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)--number 34 on the AFI list--as the first Hollywood film to deal honestly with racial issues.” Rosenbaum might be selling short the many virtues of Mockingbird, but he’s absolutely correct about the knee-jerk, self-congratulatory impulse that has enshrined the film in the mainstream, Oscar-nominated canon as a film beyond reproach.

To Kill a Mockingbird , so intent on depicting human dignity, seems to overlook to the indignities of its very subject, racial prejudice. This is a trait that one can track back to Lee’s book, published in 1960 and which Hollywood’s adaptation buys completely. In the midst of the civil rights movement, when Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were both already nationally visible figures, here are a book and a film that valorize tradition and careful action even while acknowledging the failure of the judicial process to award justice. To Kill a Mockingbird lacks even the drive to advocate the civil disobedience that King preached and practiced regularly.

An account is in order of how the film, in part, elides some of what we might call its “responsibility” as a story of social injustice. It has white protagonists in a town and society where white people dominate black people. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, of course. Where everything appears to fall short is in its treatment of black characters, none of whom are fleshed out. A cipher of color might be artistically defensible in the case of Tom Robinson, because Mulligan and the screenwriter Horton Foote (and Harper Lee) seem to have understandably wanted to keep him at a distance from the children protagonists, to have him be a figure slightly abstract and unreal to them. But what about the housekeeper Calpurnia, whose existence is intimately tied to the daily lives of the Finch family? In this instance the film goes along with the ethos of its time, not bothering to explore the life of the black mammy, and for a film that espouses the necessity of empathy, it’s disappointing to see that the black characters are never the ones in whose shoes wise Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) advises his children to walk a mile.

Though it’s set in the South of the great Judge Priest (all porch swings, politeness, and sweltering evenings), To Kill a Mockingbird fails to engage its racial issues with the candor that Ford’s film does with Will Rogers and Stepin Fetchit. So we have a white film about racial injustice that winds up dealing with only white characters in depth. Such is the paradox that marks this film and numerous other award-winning “do-gooders” from Hollywood.

If film culture en masse has put To Kill a Mockingbird up on an ossifying pedestal, it has also failed to account in real depth for some of the film’s best aspects, which are largely attributable to Robert Mulligan’s excellent direction. For one thing, not enough has been said about Mulligan’s impact on Gregory Peck’s famous performance. And yet the character of Atticus Finch is created like the characters in many Mulligan films—as a way of carving out space for his young protagonists which serves his Belton-ascribed “detachment,” he is sure to sculpt the parent characters in his films as their “own people,” so to speak, somewhat disinterested in the adolescent adventures of Jeb and Scout Finch, or Hermie in Summer of ’42, or numerous others that are so meaningful for these films’ protagonists. Not only Atticus Finch, but Daisy Clover’s mother, the older relatives in The Other, the parents in both Clara’s Heart and The Man in the Moon—whatever character traits they may have, and whatever relationships they have to their children, Mulligan tends to isolate the children and parents from each other emotionally and often spatially. It’s interesting how Jem and Scout constantly observe their father, often located in another visual plane from him as he (for instance) argues his case at trial or shoots the rabid dog. This distance, represented visually, spatially, and conceptually, is a seed Harper Lee’s writing has planted, of course, but it’s also a trope that recurs constantly in Mulligan’s filmography.

So while one should approach To Kill a Mockingbird’s thematic content critically, one can see the subtlety and sensitivity that Mulligan brings to the project, creating a distinctive “world” despite problematic material—and arguably transforming the entire film into a vision of his own making.

This “triumph of the auteur” is almost certainly the only way to appreciate Clara’s Heart, which may be an even more fascinating and rigorous film than To Kill a Mockingbird, but is more at odds with mainstream film appreciation because it trafficks in conventions of a Lifetime Television movie. The plot, briefly: after the death of a family’s young daughter, the mourning/vacationing mother (Kathleen Quinlan) brings sagacious Jamaican Clara (Whoopi Goldberg) home to tend to the house and her son David (Neil Patrick Harris). The relationship grows and Clara helps David overcome various personal challenges.

The screenplay of Clara’s Heart, by Mark Medoff, strains from the weight of supporting so many clichés. The actors seem to be following this thrust wholeheartedly; the performances are not incompetent but they certainly play towards the demands created by a melodramatic script. The revelatory lines are spoken with appropriate pause and gravity; Neil Patrick Harris’ comedic bits of Jamaican patois are given the molded charm often required of child actors. This creates a bit of friction in the film, because Mulligan and, one suspects, cinematographer Freddie Francis are doing something very different from their collaborators.

Though formulaic itself in many ways, Clara’s Heart is differentiated from—one might say elevated above—the purely formulaic contemporary melodrama precisely because of its extraordinarily sensitive methods of seeing, feeling, and presenting its world. In this sense, of course, it is similar to To Kill a Mockingbird and much of the director’s work. The camera itself is pulled slightly farther back from the action than it generally would for such a film. Mulligan (in the unlikely tradition of Jean Vigo) often features elemental imagery that exerts a powerful force from what most filmmakers would annex off as mere background or “negative space,” and Clara’s Heart is no exception, with its striking periodic shots featuring massive swaths of blue ocean and sky. Sound design too is an integral part of this, and the crashing waves that permeate much of the opening scenes in Jamaica threaten to overwhelm the expositional content into stylization. In short, the film is an important achievement in terms of compositions and colors, aural textures and spatial arrangements. And in this sense David’s story, in which he takes his first steps into adulthood with the help of Clara, acquires a strong palpability.

Two strikingly similar episodes mark To Kill a Mockingbird and Clara’s Heart, and for this author they make for the best transitional point between the material Mulligan is working with and the art that he practices on it. In both films there are moments in which children are watching something surreptitiously after having climbed a stairwell, and Mulligan stresses the space between this subject-object gaze by placing railing bars across our line of vision. In Mockingbird this is a single long shot of the children peering into a keyhole trying to glimpse Tom Robinson’s trial; in Clara’s Heart it’s a two-shot in (bars present in both) which we look down on David with his binoculars, and up at Clara in her new bedroom down the hall.

The specific objects of these children’s gazes say something about where the film’s meanings are to be found. Although mawkishness might make Clara’s Heart hard for some viewers to warm up to, it actually serves Robert Mulligan’s methods quite well. There’s an emotional directness from the melodrama that dictates a more relationship-based approach to the material. Specifically, David in that film is slowly trying to understand a person. The film documents David’s gradual realization of her very personhood. At one point he massages Clara’s feet, and with only partial innocence he moves his hands up her leg, past her knee. Whoopi Goldberg reacts with vehement alarm, and for perhaps the only moment in the film the concerns of the melodrama converge with the concerns of the camera. Evoking if not repeating his treatment of romantic tension in Summer of ’42, Mulligan draws a quick charge from the moment when David’s unfocused desire draws the wrath of the adult Clara, who registers the touch as inappropriate, and the psychology of both characters is brought into violent contrast. David’s “growth” correlates to the extent to which he can come to realize Clara’s existence as an autonomous person; the diminishment of his own ego and acknowledgment of others’ is played out on these terms. This is the dynamic between white child and black adult that To Kill a Mockingbird elides.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, the children are trying to understand not a person but some unwieldy concept—something about life and how communities work. Although Mockingbird’s plot boasts greater craftsmanship than that of Clara’s Heart, the direct emotional investment of melodrama, even “bad” melodrama, cuts directly to what seems to interest Mulligan throughout his career. It’s his most common theme: the inner reflections of one person (often a child) learning something about life through observations of other people. The children-subjects are very much present in both films, but in To Kill a Mockingbird the objects in this relationship are diffuse, abstracted: they’re looking at things, but these things are always symbolic of lessons. So the ideologically questionable refusal of To Kill a Mockingbird, as a story, to direct the children’s empathy towards the black characters also arguably inhibits Mulligan’s capacity for his highly reflective cinema.

Would you want to see what would result if Robert Mulligan filmed a story about white children watching and learning from black people directly? Well, Clara’s Heart is just that film, albeit with compromises of its own. Dealing with the thorny issue of relations between black and white worlds—rarely allowed to be tackled with candor in Hollywood—Mulligan twice took imperfect material and fashioned something powerful and humble and even honest about it. The flaws remain, and are worth discussing, but if we rush over the miraculous achievements of a director too rarely championed in film culture, we can lay no claim to fully understanding either of these films.

To Kill a Mockingbird

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