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Screening of To Kill a Mockingbird at Film Festival Brings Out Issues of Ethics and Morality


Moderator Thane Rosenbaum (far left), director of Fordham Law School’s Forum on Law, Culture & Society, engages panelists U.S. District Court Judge John F. Keenan, Cecelia Peck, daughter of Gregory Peck, and Stuart Klawans, film critic for The Nation magazine, in a discussion about the film To Kill a Mockingbird.
Photo by Nancy Adler

For journalists, it’s All the Presidents Men. For baseball players, it’s Field of Dreams. But for lawyers, the movie that is cited most often as an inspiration is To Kill a Mockingbird, the classic 1962 film whose lead character, Atticus Finch, was recently voted the top screen hero of the last 100 years by the American Film Institute.

But is it possible to follow in the footsteps of Atticus Finch, who was played by Gregory Peck? That was one of the many questions debated by moviegoers after a screening of the film at the Forum on Law, Culture & Society’s Fordham Law Film Festival. The screening and panel discussion took place on Oct. 23 in the McNally Amphitheatre.

The unique film festival, which is in its second year, drew more than a 1,000 people to its six films, screened for large crowds at Fordham and elsewhere from Oct. 19 to Oct. 25. The festival’s opening night featured the HBO documentary Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later. Other films included The Merchant of Venice, Reversal of Fortune, True Believer and The People vs. Larry Flynt.

After the screening of To Kill a Mockingbird, a panel discussion followed with Cecelia Peck, daughter of Gregory Peck; Stuart Klawans, film critic for The Nation magazine; and U.S. District Court Judge John F. Keenan.

Keenan said that when he watched Atticus Finch exhort his daughter not to fight anyone who mocked his defense of Tom Robinson, the black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman, it reminded him of Jackie Robinson when he first began playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The judge also said that while he found the courtroom scenes in which Finch fought in vain to save his client to be legally preposterous, they were indicative of the atmosphere of 1930s-era Alabama.

“The evidence wasn’t even circumstantial; the case should have been thrown out after the prosecution,” he said. “An awful lot of what that D.A. did, if anyone did anything like that in my courtroom … he’d be in the pokey. When he called the defendant ‘boy,’ that got me in the gut.”

Like her father, Cecelia Peck has taken an interest in socially relevant films, and directed and produced the 2006 documentary Shut Up and Sing about the country music group the Dixie Chicks. Clips from a 1999 documentary about her father that she produced were also shown during the forum.

“He was very much like Atticus,” she said of her father. “He had the courage of his convictions. When it was made in the 60s, it was groundbreaking to take it on. My father was willing to do films about issues that he believed in.”

In the question-and-answer period, one audience member asked about how Peck’s noble lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird could be reconciled with Richard Gere’s character in the 1996 film Primal Fear, where he tells his client he doesn’t care whether he’s guilty.

The panel’s moderator, Thane Rosenbaum, John Whelan Distinguished Lecturer in Law and director of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society, said that Reversal of Fortune, which had been screened the night before, could also be seen as an example how a moral attorney will defend the innocent even at risk to himself, whereas a strictly ethical one is only interested in testing the ethical and legal fringes of the system, regardless whether the defendant is innocent or guilty.

“This is why we needed to see both of these films,” he said. “It’s tough, but I will say that this line between moral and ethical is what filmmakers are so interested in.”

Corporate sponsors for the festival were HBO and the law firm of Entwistle & Cappucci LLP. All of the screenings took place at McNally Amphitheatre with the exception of the opening night film, which was shown at the HBO Theater in Manhattan.


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